Taos News Lifestyles: Red Willow Growers sustain year-round market

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Red Willow farm manager Shirley Trujillo swung open the thick round metal door of the GARN heater to reveal a blazing pile of piñón logs — the foundation of a complex but sustainable system that is allowing agriculture to thrive even as temperatures plunge.

Thirty-two-hundred gallons of water swirls around the steel encasement surrounding the fire. The heated water then channels into above- and below-ground pipes warming the Red Willow greenhouses, as well as two other buildings on site.

"All the ash and creosote are burned off when the smoke travels through the second core of the system," explained Trujillo, over the whir of the induction fan. "So after the first 10 minutes, the system is smoke-free."

The GARN, also known as a biomass heater, is one of several innovative heating systems propelling Red Willow Growers at Taos Pueblo through its second winter of farming and its first season of the Red Willow Winter Market.

Produce, such as winter squash, onions, garlic, cabbage and greens are available as well as homemade soaps, baked goods and fresh, hot tamales every Wednesday throughout the winter from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the building adjacent to the Red Willow Education Center.

"It's wonderful," said Gayle Mace, while balancing a Taos Pueblo buttercup squash and several onions in her arms.

Mace was visiting Taos recently from La Veta Pass, Colo., with her daughter Alana Mace.

"We're both gardeners and big farmers market fans, so when we saw the sign on the road, we said, 'Oh let's go!'"

All Taos Pueblo growers and producers are welcome to sell at the market by joining the Red Willow Co-op, which currently has about 60 members, according to treasurer and technical advisor Curtis Miller. Members are also entitled to borrow equipment and to access technical and marketing assistance.

Producers are encouraged to coordinate with farmers so their products can include locally grown produce whenever possible.

"I use wild plums, chokecherries and apples from local trees for my jams," said Henrietta Gomez, who was also selling her pork and vegetarian tamales from a steaming crock pot. "I get my black beans and onions for my tamales from the co-op. My corn is from Luis (Archuleta), squash and zucchini are from Curtis. When I was a kid we grew everything — we planted the corn, chili, everything that went into it, even the husks. I try to make them just like my grandmother's. So far I have a lot of loyal repeat customers."

Model program

The success of the yearround greenhouses has put Taos Pueblo on the map as a model for other pueblos and communities looking to revitalize agriculture.

"We've had tribes from Tuba City, Hopi, Dine, Navajo Country, White Apache Mountain come to see what we're doing," said Trujillo. "A lot of them want to start putting in greenhouses and nurseries.

"A couple running a school in Colorado saw the GARN and put one in. They came back this summer and said it's been running really well."

The GARN, which burns wood harvested from Taos Pueblo thinnings, produces enough heat for two greenhouses — one 75 by 24 feet and the other, 30 by 100 feet — as well as the classroom and administrative offices of the Red Willow Learning and Education Center and the new preservation building.

Excess heat from the GARN room itself is vented into the adjacent growers market room to keep shoppers toasty.

Preserving energy

Red Willow's west greenhouse utilizes another simple but effective heating system in addition to the GARN. Strategically placed fans, enclosed in barrels, siphon hot air that naturally collects at the top of the greenhouse into an underground piping system that warms the earth around the plants.

"Just doing that, the ground never freezes," said Carl Rosenberg, who assists Taos Pueblo in building and managing green energy systems.

"Even before we had the hydronic heating system, I was harvesting chard and beet greens this high," he said, gesturing to the height of his thigh. Cellulose insulation is another energy preserving tool used at Red Willow.

Made from locally sourced 100 percent recycled newspaper, it was used in the new preservation building, as well as the new walk-in cooler for its excellent insulation rating.

Solar panels provide the energy for the greenhouses' drip and irrigation systems and a grant has been secured to acquire additional panels that can take the greenhouses and the GARN entirely off the grid, as well as provide back up for these systems.

'Different farming'

Preservation supervisor Daniel Marcus lights the first fire in the GARN each morning at 7 a.m. Marcus learned to farm as a youth working side by side with his grandfather and since coming onboard at Red Willow in 2007, he has picked up a few new tools.

"I've learned about radiant heating, electrical systems and greenhouse construction …This is a whole different era, with different farming to do and advanced techniques that go with it," he said.

The unique blend of traditional and contemporary techniques used at Red Willow are being passed down to younger generations through the Red Willow Education Center's after-school and summer youth programs started by Education Director Shawn Duran. They host students from Vista Grande, Taos High School and Taos Cyber School for 16-20 hours a week to assist with all aspects of yearround farming.

Red Willow encompasses three separate entities: Red Willow Growers, Red Willow Center and Red Willow Coop. It emerged following the sustainable agriculture initiative approved by Taos Pueblo tribal administrator Valentino Cordova in 2002. The summer market, which started in 2007 with three vendors now has 20 vendors; the winter market has about seven growers.

"We're going to agriculture again," said Trujillo. "It all has to do with health. A lot of Native people have diabetes and high blood pressure and a healthier diet can help with these issues. And it's beautiful to see green in winter, it's just amazing how things can still grow."

For more information, call (575) 758-5990 or visit www. redwillowcoop.com

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