Located 20 miles north of Santa Fe at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Nambe (meaning ‘People of the Round Earth” in the Tewa language) is one of the 8 northern Pueblos (along with Taos, Tesuque, Santa Clara, San Idelfonso, Pojoaque, Picuris, and Ohkay Owingeh.) The community was established in the 1300’s, and was invaded by the Spanish in the late 16th century, resulting in a syncretic culture that blends ancient Pueblo traditions with Christianity, and Spanish foods like peaches, peppers and wheat. The Pueblo have always relied on farming to sustain them, and post-contact they incorporated Spanish crops into their fields, and Catholic saints into their harvest ceremonies. Nambe Pueblo encompasses 19,903 acres, including homes and gardens, and also land used for hunting, grazing, recreation, and for obtaining clay for their famous pottery. The Rio Nambe, whose headwaters begin high in the mountains, 5 miles east of the reservation boundary, flows through the Pueblo, providing a steady source of water for the community, eventually feeding into the Rio Grande.
The Nambe Pueblo Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (est. 1996) hosts several programs, including the Water Quality Program, the Buffalo Program, and the Community Farm and Vineyard. We met with George Toya, the Farm Program Manager, who gave us a tour of the farm, the buffalo herd, and the famous Nambe Falls. George is a Grammy award winning drummer, a well known regional artist, and a farmer with a passion for both innovation and tradition.
George began our tour in the hoop house that he constructed with the help of community volunteers. They started by looking at expensive greenhouse kits, and decided to improve on the design, and save money, by constructing one themselves. In total, they spent $1,300 in materials on the greenhouse, utilizing chain link fence posts, two inch PVC pipe, lumber, greenhouse fabric, and volunteer labor. Raised beds are filled with rich soil, and a drip irrigation system. This year they have planted tomatoes, as well as lettuce, basil, kale, cilantro, spinach, Swiss chard, beets, broccoli, carrots and cilantro. Last year’s harvest from the greenhouse totaled over 3,000 pounds. Nambe is about 7,000 feet above sea level, so the growing season is fairly short (they just had their last freeze three weeks ago, and the fall freeze will come in late September). The hoop house is invaluable for extending their season and providing fresh produce to the community. Most of the vegetables grown here are picked by the youth program and taken to the senior center and to their own homes, and given to tribal employees and other community members.
The Community Farm program also plants outdoors, in a one acre field that is maintained by a tractor funded through the First Nations Development Institute, and another field planted by hand using hoes and traditional digging sticks.Traditional Pueblo blue corn and sweet corn are planted, as well as pumpkins, melons, beets, cucumbers, chilies and other crops. Each row is labeled in English and in Tewa in order to help the youth volunteers learn the language.
A one acre vineyard has also been planted, with four varieties of grapes known to do well in this climate. The late freeze killed the tops of many of these plants, but they’re in the process of growing back. Next week, the youth summer program will have this entire vineyard weed free. But it will be another couple of years before the vines are well established enough to produce fruit.
Last year the fields produced 4,000 lbs of produce, which was also given away to the youth, elders and community members. Two years ago, there was also a bumper crop of fruit (last freezes the past two springs have killed off all of the buds on the fruit trees). The youth were encouraged to pick as much as they wanted to eat and take home, and the remaining 800 pounds of fruit was used in canning workshops, hosted at the wellness center. Participants took the jars of fruit home with them, and many people continue canning now that they’ve learned how easy it can be.
In addition to planting the Community Farm, the farm program also works with landowners in the pueblo to revitalize their land. The farm program leases land for 5 years, improving the land and planting alfalfa on it that is then used to feed the buffalo program, or sold to support the program. When the lease is over, they turn the field back over to the landowner with a crop of alfalfa planted, so that they can make a profit from it. Then they begin another field, gradually working their way through the community reclaiming abandoned farmland from invasive species like the Russian olive and the Chinese elm. These trees were introduced by missionaries as fast growing shade trees, but unfortunately the wood is not good for carving and stinks when burned, and these species rapidly overtake fields. In the 1950’s, many young men left the community- either through boarding schools, urban relocation programs, or the military. This created a disjuncture in the passing on of traditional farming knowledge, and resulted in fields going fallow. But George sees that those fields still have potential, and his goal is to “try to get some of the youth interested in continuing that, and teach them that this land that has sustained everybody here for thousands of years can really take care of you again. And you don’t have to be going out to Wal-Mart and all these other places to get your food. This land can produce it.” George’s crew also tilled up smaller gardens for a dozen families this year. As we drove through the community, George was able to point out fields they had improved, homes where they had helped to install a greenhouse, and one of the summer youth program participants who had decided to plant his own garden.
The buffalo herd was established in 1994 with assistance from the Intertribal Buffalo Council. Traditionally, the Pueblo hunted buffalo on the eastern plains of New Mexico, and this is still reflected in the Pueblo Buffalo Dance. Unfortunately, the wild buffalo were eliminated from this area after European contact, and so the Nambe buffalo herd has provided an opportunity for community members to interact with this animal again. Last year, they harvested two of the buffalo taking down these one ton animals with a bow and arrow, butchering and skinning them with stone knives and axes. The meat was given to the community during the annual harvest festival in October.
Most of the water for irrigating fields and gardens in this community comes from the Rio Nambe, and the reservoir which contains some of it above the community. In 2012, a wildfire ravaged the other side of the mountain from Nambe, burning the Ponderosa pines to a fine ash. The strong rains that followed washed the ash, as well as boulders, logs and soil, into the reservoir. The ash deprived the fish of oxygen, killing them all. The sand filled in part of the lake, diminishing its capacity, and decreasing the amount of water available to farmers down stream. The Bureau of Reclamation is currently working with the Pueblo to dredge the lake and return it to its former capacity.
Although facing challenges like erosion, late freezes and invasive species, the Nambe Community Farm has been amazingly productive over a few short years, producing thousands of pounds of vegetables, fruit, and meat for community members, encouraging youth and adults to take up gardening and food preservation, and working their way through the community improving the land for current and future farmers.