Cornelio Candelaria Organics,
South Valley, Albuquerque, New Mexico
The smell of green growth greets us as we enter the field of sturdily supported blackberry bushes that rise to eye level.
With a twinkle in his eye, Lorenzo Candelaria urges me to sample the plump, dark nearly 2 inch fruits clustered along each branch. The flavor explosion in my mouth must show on my face, because he laughs and urges me to try another, and suggests that later we might want to sample his blackberry brandy.
Thus, we are welcomed to Cornelio Candelaria Organics, home of Lorenzo Candelaria, located on farmland rooted in the community of Atrisco, which celebrated its Tricentennial in 2003, predating the founding of La Villa De Albuquerque. The Atrisco Land Grant area is located on the west side of the Rio Grande in the still rural, agricultural South Valley, located south of the Route 66/Central Avenue corridor. Before Spanish colonization, these lands were inhabited by Tiwa Pueblo peoples.
Señor Candelaria is very mindful of this vital history as he continues his stewardship of the land. He recalls his grandmother’s admonitions to have the same respect for Mother Earth as for his own mother. As we pass two foot shoots of blackberries that extend seductively into our path, it is clear that he has a real connection to the “living creature” of the land, grooming it with tenderness and love as he would his mother. His mother was pregnant with him when she returned to New Mexico from Oakland to give birth to Lorenzo, moving to his grandmother’s ranch where he was born prematurely, weighing in at three pounds.
He recalls the early days of the Atrisco community of his youth, when no one had fences. “You didn’t need one, he recalls”. “Your ditch determined your land. The United States’ way of looking at land (private, individual ownership of land for profit) changed the paradigm of how we use our water and how we feel about our land. We used to share plowing within the community, and grazing was on common land. Children no longer speak our language. We have lost our agricultural roots, where the work of the farm included community, and a lot of the food produced was shared with neighbors, people who needed it.” Losing those roots in the land means that we lose the knowledge of the food that nourishes us. When you watch your food grow from seed planted with your own hands, when you harvest from the garden, you are connecting yourself with the life of the earth.
“Your ditch determined your land.
The United States’ way of looking at land
(private, individual ownership of land for profit) changed the paradigm of how we use our water and how we feel about our land.
Standing at the edge of the acequia, (traditional irrigation ditch), listening to the whisper of the flowing water, it is clear that he feels the weight of these changes deeply. As his gaze rests on the gentle current that has flowed every summer for over 300 years, he laments that the loss of respect for and duty toward the land is leading to the demise of our humanity. “This is a living creature, not just dirt that we stand on. We are dependent on her for everything,” he says, “and if we don’t have the gratitude and appreciation for that, we are doomed.” He likens it to cutting the ovaries out of a mother’s womb so there is no longer the chance of procreation. He decries the lack of interest in the pollution industry has caused, and the numerous Superfund Sites in the
South Valley that have not been cleaned up. As a result, the biggest effort he is making with the farm is to make sure he builds awareness of the need for gratitude for the land. “Whether we can change people’s lives or not, who knows. If we don’t make an effort, then the possibility of positive change is gone.”
He also observes the early effects of climate change in many ways. Over the last six to eight years, he has noticed changes, especially in early spring. The rising temperatures have forced him to change the planting of early crops. He is no longer able to do successive planting of cool weather crops that he used to. The heat comes too soon. Sweet corn is also getting more difficult to grow. If he plants the sweet corn earlier to allow it to mature before summer temperatures get too hot, the seedlings may be killed by spring frost. And he notes that while the earth has cycles of rain and drought, these traditional changes have been greatly exacerbated by the effects of human induced climate change. He predicts that the climate in Albuquerque is changing to be more like El Paso with higher and higher temperatures. “This world is changing, and we have to
be prepared. And if we are not, quien sabe?”
He has also made a concerted effort to use more drought tolerant seeds from desert areas and ancient sources. There is a calabaza called cáscara dura, from the Sonoran Desert, and drought tolerant corn and melon shared by the Pueblo people who have a ‘deeper knowledge’ of ancient traditions. His efforts to find or develop seeds that will produce in a hotter, dryer world, are driven by what he sees and feels on the land he is working. “It is not just out of a textbook or a news story about climate change. It doesn’t take a scientist to prove it. It is real to those of us who farm.”
His face shaded by a finely woven straw hat, his slender figure covered with plaid shirt,
traditional bandana and denim overalls, he might be a figure from another era. But although he is worried about the state of both agriculture and community, his lively eyes reveal the way he is making his life an example of forward-looking change.
“Saving of seeds,” he says, “is the saving of life.” He also sees ancient seeds as sovereign. Now because of genetic engineering, he worries that the makeup of food itself has changed to the extent that our bodies don’t recognize it as food. He states that the agribusiness model of monoculture, along with poisonous pesticides and herbicides,and chemical fertilizer is not sustainable. He fears that the monocrop food production system is in collapse. “It’s up to the small farmer to understand that the load of supplying food for a community is on our shoulders. It is a great responsibility. It must be taken seriously and done with love and kindness and compassion. Because food is a gift. It is a gift. We can’t take it for granted.”
“Passing down knowledge is very important for survival in this region”, he says. For this reason, he is mentoring local youth, not only with regards to farming techniques, but also with reverence for the land and community. As the leaves of the plants convert the intense high desert sunshine into the sweetness of the ripening blackberry crop, he speaks with pleasure and pride of the lives of high school students that have been changed by their experience of working on the farm. They are grappling with life, with who they are, and some are experiencing profound change. Recalling one youth who was suicidal when he first entered the program, he says, “I worked him hard, and it gave him a reason to be here, a love of mother earth. Now he is on the honor roll.”
He has also been pleased that several young women working on the farm have experienced their connection to mother earth and the sacredness of that connection. This vision has changed their lives, which he describes with pleasure as a “harvest of consciousness.”
Our conversation and stroll across the farm fields, past the old family home and along the still vital acequia winds down. We pause and relax in the shade of an ancient cottonwood tree for the promised taste of that blackberry brandy. The sweet intensity of the wine both relaxes and heightens our senses.
What final thoughts would he like to share? We must place the gift of food and the sustainability of the land above the ‘convenience’ of a fast food meal. “We’re living in a world of convenience, and having to admit our wrong is not very convenient because feeling guilty doesn’t feel very good. Right?” When we get our food from a drive-up, it is easy to forget that farming in general is very risky. “Sometimes you eat chickens, sometimes you eat feathers! Knowing how to digest both is what will keep us alive.” We have to be aware of our actions and the source of our food. The biggest effort on the farm is to make sure that awareness takes place. If we remain silent to the destruction that is happening around us, we are headed for a very rough road. We must build
awareness toward the living earth, its beauty, greatness and our dependence on it.
And his final advice?