These lettuce seedlings sitting in front of me took three years to grow. Well in truth, they are two weeks old, but in reality, to build the farm in which they now grow took what seems a lifetime to get off the ground.
The first seed was sown a long time ago when a colleague and I were making a film about the sustainability programs at Santa Fe Community College’s School of Trades, Advanced Technologies and Sustainability in Santa Fe, NM.
We climbed the stairs to the upper level of a farm pod situated in a carpark next to a geodesic dome greenhouse. As the head of the Controlled Environment Agriculture program, R. Charlie Shultz, opined on the opportunities and importance of sustainable farming, one of his interns leaned over and offered me a strawberry. The burst of flavor in my mouth distracted me from running the video camera, and it set me on a journey towards the building of New Mexico’s first commercial indoor, vertical, aquaponics farm.
A tortuous path battling county Land Use administrators, lawyers and neighbors led me away from building on my own property to venturing into an urban business park. And after six hard months of carpentry, plumbing, electrical and light and fluid dynamics, we have sown our first seeds.
Had it not been for the invaluable assistance of two student interns for the Community College, I’d still be building platforms for the fish tanks. The College offers classes in all aspects of Controlled Environment Agriculture. Charlie Shultz brought his expertise and experience from prior positions at the University of the Virgin Islands, Kentucky State, and Lethbridge College. He is joined by Pedro Casas-Cordera who had an aquaponics farm in Puerto Rico prior to Hurricane Maria, and an assortment of other teachers, most of whom who have graduated from the program and now teach as adjunct faculty or help run the greenhouse.
A major component of the teaching here is workforce training, accomplished in large measure by the support of numerous paid and non-paid for-credit internships both on campus or working with local businesses in the farming or horticulture area.
Since the beginning of my project, the importance of not only growing food but also jobs for those getting trained at the College has been a significant part of my mission. Indeed, we plan to provide food for the community — lettuce and spinach for local farm to cafeteria programs.
But beyond that, we recognize that New Mexico is a food desert. Ninety percent of the agricultural product grown in our state is exported - alfalfa, pecans and chilis are shipped out of sate. Our supermarkets ship in “fresh” produce daily from California, Mexico, and Central America. How do we stimulate local food production to meet the supply needs of our local communities? We must nurture those committed to growing for local consumption.
Our Community College trains people who share the conviction that we hold our future in our hands. Young people who want to feed our friends and families.
And so it comes back to my farm. We will produce 3-4000 plants each week - tailored to the needs of our clients, schools, senior centers, restaurants. Growing product in a sustainable process that will demonstrate to others the feasibility of duplicating this to others throughout our state. And along the way, we will create careers for these who are passionate about feeding the world.