The folks at Los Poblanos are striding into the future by rooting themselves in the past. An organic farm, an organic lavender enterprise producing soaps, skin conditioners, and oils, an adobe inn evoking the colonial era, and a cultural center share twenty-five acres of what was a 500 acre, early 18th century Spanish land grant. Mature shade trees tower over the narrow lane that leads into the property in an area of northwestern Albuquerque still noted for open spaces and equestrian centers. In the 1930's, Albert and Ruth Simms, both representatives in the U.S. Congress, owned Los Poblanos. They hired architect John Gaw Meem, credited as the originator of contemporary Santa Fe style to design the complex. The ranch house is both grand and intimate, quintessentially New Mexican, and houses the inn. The sweeping, stately 15,000 square foot La Quinta Cultural Center is used for private parties, banquets, seminars, and corporate retreats. The Center has an impeccably appointed library, a ball room complete with grand piano, and an art gallery currently displaying Alexander Calder textiles. Current owners Armin and Penny Rembe are determined to keep the ranch's historic legacy alive.
Monte Skarsgard's Los Poblanos Organics and the Rembes' lavender field are so integrated into the ranch's overall mission that an image of San Ysidro, a hard-working farm laborer in 12th century Spain and a patron saint of agriculture, is Los Poblanos' logo. A large wood statue of the saint presides over a pond with flowering lotus plants in the middle of the property.
Farmer Monte, as he likes to be called, is at once both proud of the land's heritage and sanguine about its potential to help chart a course for New Mexico's small organic producers. The original home of Creamland Dairy comprises the land Monte now cultivates, he explains. Next to us, a hundred thirty free-range chickens are pecking and clucking. Fields stretch in front of us, the Sandias towering on the other side of the valley. Monte met the Rembes when he and his future wife contacted La Quinta as a possible place for their wedding. An Albuquerque native, he'd worked on an organic farm in Washington. He wanted to till his home turf, and the Rembes were looking for someone to grow crops. "It was perfect."
When Monte rented the land in 2002, he plowed under fertile pastures where cows once grazed. Two tall silos stand idle, and a large open-sided metal-roofed barn, once used for hay storage, shelters heavy equipment. Dried lavender hanging on rafters lends a lovely, sweet scent to the former cow barn; after the summer harvest, the air becomes so redolent of lavender that people have to wear respirator masks. Early season crop propagation takes place in a greenhouse. (The shelter protected the plants through the cold spring, although the apricot crop was lost.) The old milking shed hasn't been touched.
Los Poblanos' four businesses are thriving. "Our visions are really similar so it's a nice relationship," Monte says. "We talk several times a week-about our visions and practical things." Everyone's happy with the arrangement. "You can stay at the inn, eat eggs and melon for breakfast, then see the chickens and fields they came from." Land prices are so high that Monte never could have afforded the acreage he now works. The Rembes gave up a potential windfall through selling off some of the property. "The land's being put into an agricultural trust so it can't be developed. They're looking at a greater cause," Monte makes clear. "It feels good to work here."
As much as twenty-nine year old Monte loves agricultural work, he's no backward-looking romantic. He calls his wife Amy (training to be a physician's assistant) and himself "urban people" who like city life. His education-he's a college grad who majored in business economics-shows. "I want to be proactive about taking agriculture in a different direction." The key, he believes, is building on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
In the traditional CSA model, a small farm, usually organic, sells "shares" to members, who pay a fixed rate to obtain a weekly "box" of food. According to Monte, that's short-sighted. "The first key to sustainability is financial sustainability. The inefficiency of small growers is the marketing. I'd like to see growers all come together and distribute through one CSA." The three growing regions of New Mexico-the south (around Las Cruces), central (Albuquerque), and north (Santa Fe to Taos)-have different strengths and weaknesses in crops, and different growing seasons. If organic farmers formed a large co-op and distributed their products from one center, both farmers and consumer-members would benefit.
Los Poblanos Organics, with 190 members in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, already distributes produce year-round by buying from West Coast organic farms when his fields produce little. "The economist in me says you can have a profitable business that's good for the people who work for it, good for the environment, and produces the highest quality stuff you can imagine. We can harvest in the morning and you can have it for dinner that night."
Farmers' own attitudes can hold them back, Monte says. Many of them get winter jobs, believing "you can't make money at it." That's dead wrong. He plans to build more greenhouses to make use of winter sun, and shade plants in the summer to prevent their going dormant from overheating in the summer. "Then your plants are rockin' and rollin'. You can extend the seasons and grow a wider variety. It can be a financially viable lifestyle."
Farming techniques can improve, too. Too many farms, large and small, are inefficient. At Los Poblanos, in contrast, "All our watering is by drip irrigation." Grow what grows best, he recommends. Last summer, in severe drought conditions, the one acre lavender patch (owned and managed by the Rembes) was watered only twice. He also likes the efficiency of melons, once they're established. "We grow things when they grow best, so we don't even have to use organic pesticides like bark resins and crushed chrysanthemum flowers, which kill off the beneficial bugs, too." He plows under winter wheat to fertilize his fields, and feeds his plants a compost-derived tea "because it has all the beneficial bacteria you need."
Monte believes in passing on his knowledge. Three interns are working in the field while we talk. "It's the first year we've done it, but that's how I got started. We hold classes every week for our apprentices. Nobody was ever a great farmer by reading books. You have to get out and get your hands dirty, experience the losses and triumphs."
As we end our conversation and he walks into the fields to join the others, I suspect that San Ysidro would approve.
Learn more about Los Poblanos Organics and its CSA atlospoblanosorganics.com or call Monte at 681-4060. For the inn, cultural center, and public events, including everything lavender, check out lospoblanos.com, which has lots of great photos, too.