Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Cultivating a vision to sustain generations -- Don Bustos

Re-published from American Friends Service Committee's Acting in Faith blog. This interview was written by Lucy Duncan, AFSC's Friends Liaison. Learn about AFSC and other Quaker peace and social justice work at

The right to grow food and have access to water

Don Bustos in his kitchen at Santa Cruz Farm
Don Bustos in his kitchen at Santa Cruz Farm
Don Bustos (DB): The name of our farm is Santa Cruz Farm, after our church the Santa Cruz Church, and then the Santa Cruz de la Canada Land Grant [in New Mexico]. I still farm the same land my ancestors farmed over 300 years ago and as you walk outside, you'll see the same land, the same crops, and the same methods that my ancestors used. That's the knowledge we pass on to the trainees.

We do incorporate a little new technology that allows us to grow produce year round using nothing but solar energy, like cold frames.

We reconstituted the land grant here several years ago. We have been able to petition the state to acquire some land. The original land grant was 44,600 acres. It started just down the road, went down past the river, then all the way up to the mountains in the Chimayo area where the Santa Cruz reservoir is now.

We've been able to find about 4,600 acres that we lay claim to now as communal land, and we want to expand the land grant, so that eventually we hope the families will be interested in revitalizing the communal land grant, build housing, the whole community can grow their food, have their jobs, feed their kids, and still be a sustainable system.
We're talking about revitalizing the old food system, regenerating that, then allowing it to be sustainable for hundreds of years to come, and not rely on a lot of outside food production.
We still irrigate with our ancient acequia system that was dug hundreds of years ago, ours here is earth dug, it hasn't changed, the only thing that has changed is the pathway of the water itself. We irrigate off the Santa Cruz River; our acequia is called the Santa Cruz acequia. We have a small communal reservoir that the community financed, not the government. It was built in the 1920s.

Acequia in NMThe Santa Cruz River is a stream about 3 inches deep, about 6 feet wide—that's it. Right now there are 5,600 families that depend on the Santa Cruz River for some kind of production, perhaps not the way we do it, but to continue to grow their food, or orchards, or livestock. We live on the edge of the Sonoran desert. That's why the water is so valuable. When you depend on the amount of water to flow to your farm—to feed your family and your community—you've got to be really careful about how it's used, use it several times, then return it to the river where it charges the aquifer and then starts to create that system again.

We've known that for hundreds of years, so how do we continue that knowledge so future generations know the importance of it—so they can continue to grow their food?

If you grow your food, if you grow your own seeds, you're a free person, you don't become a slave to the food system where you have to work and buy the food at any price that's mandated. To us, it's an empowerment issue. It's a human right to be able to grow our own food, and have access to good water, fairly and equitably.

Our training program is protecting land and water, and we're training people to be business men and women. They choose sustainable agriculture. Our job is to give them the tools, then they make critical decisions that allow them to be successful businesspeople, thereby protecting their land and water.
Don Bustos' Farm
LD: Successful, but also collaborative...

DB: It's about communal development. How do we aggregate our product, so we can meet the needs of institutional buyers? That means creating cooperatives, or networks, getting people to sit at the table when they sometimes have differences, having those discussions occur, and then figuring out that the best solution is for the community to work together to create a food system that allows the whole community to flourish.

We go in the community and say we don't know everything, but with your help, we'll all learn. Then in three years, AFSC walks, win, lose or draw, it's up to our trainees to take it over and run with it or it's not going to work. You see that transition happening in Albuquerque. At first it's a little rocky, they want us there, but then they say, "How come you're still here?"

LD: This seems to counteract models of scarcity, people don't change their minds theoretically, you
have to experience something else…

DB: People are really asking us to replicate the model, not only in New Mexico. I've been traveling out to Indian country, up in Navajo area, and to the Dine and Hopi. We're trying to figure out how to partner with them. Hopefully we can go to the next stage. We are setting up this model and at some point in the future we can go to the USDA Farm Bill and set up a federal program that will put resources in place for aggregation within underserved communities. We could actually have a piece of legislation that all of us could work to get passed. That won't happen until 2016 or 2020, but we're laying the ground work.

LD:  Sayrah was telling me that people want this program because it is an economic alternative to the military.

DB: In Chapparal they are recruiting very young men and women to become part of the military, but now they see an option in the farming, it may not be as developed as we like, but it holds them over. Now there is an option in northern New Mexico. When I was growing up, the military was the one economic option, now this is another option. New Mexico has a 48 percent drop-out rate from high school. So, what else is there? This is the alternative. This is the alternative or there is no alternative. This is an alternative for formerly incarcerated people, too. There is a lot of impact on a lot of levels.

On returning to organic methods

Don Bustos in his fields at Santa Cruz Farm
Don Bustos in his fields at Santa Cruz Farm
LD: At some point you were using pesticides, and you stopped.

DB: That's how our farm moved from conventional growing to certified organic. In the 1960s I was still a young lad, we were still farming naturally.

Then in 1967 an agricultural agent came by and gave my dad a bottle of liquid. I learned later that it was DDT. He mixed it with water. That year we had perfect corn, none of our corn had worms, we had a great crop. So my dad started to use it. That was the late 1960s until I started to take over in the late 70s and mid 80s. There was a period where my dad would use chemical fertilizers and insecticides, all approved by USDA and encouraged to be used.

When my parents got older, I started to farm more, I had a small construction company. I would come on the weekends and help my dad and my mom on the farm, then I took over the farm and started to grow alfalfa. Then I started to go to farmers markets. In the1980s when the economy was real slow, I started to do more farming, I started to grow pumpkins and corn and stuff like that and I was still using Sevin dust. I was growing the best pumpkins in northern New Mexico and for six weeks I would go out and spread the Sevin dust—you put it on the plant for six weeks and it kills all the squash bugs. I'd go to the farmers markets in the morning, then I'd take a little nap, then in the evening I'd go out and do a little dusting.

Then one evening, when my son was a one-year-old infant,  I went out and did my dusting. I came back in and was walking across the floor, and he started to roll after me, and I kind of imagined that dust coming off my pants leg, then him rolling in that dust. It dawned on me, I'm poisoning the bugs out there, I don't need to be poisoning my kids. I got that moment of clarity: that's not going to work. That's when I started to learn to grow organic and moved from a chemical based agricultural system to an organic system. We've been certified organic since the 1980s.

No other way but equality and community

Agri-Cultura Network Produce
Agri-Cultura Network Produce
LD: What changes have you witnessed in the communities in which you've worked?
DB: People used to say the model you've created only depends on you. I'd say, "If that's true, then the model's not working."
In Las Cruces, in Chapparal, we're working with a group of immigrant growers. The group we're working with created a little farm in the middle of the desert, with limited water. They have cold frames, they are forming a cooperative, it's mostly women.

Women have really come into the project; we're hearing their voices more and more. They are growing food; they are going to the markets and speaking.

I did a study with Oxfam International which talks about the people that we work with—they get less than 1% of all the federal resources for agriculture, yet we represent 15% of the growers. In that same study, the growth of the farmers that will save agriculture is the immigrant growers.

LD: It seems as though your work is so powerfully practical and empowering. Would you mind talking a bit about the spiritual aspects?

DB: The spiritual is part of everything we do, so we talk about water and we talk about farming. When we plant we do a blessing, "One for the creator, one for the neighbor, and one for everything living,” acknowledging that the creator is all powerful. In the spring the priest blesses the waters, or rather acknowledges that the waters are blessed. That moves the tradition forward. It allows us to go forward and plant our seeds. On our farm we have a bean called a Virgin Mary bean, it's planted on the corners of the farm and it protects the farm from bad weather. We do a dance and acknowledgement. We plant by the moon cycles. That's part of what we teach.

LD: It's really interesting—setting up the systems that are interdependent and communal is empowering and humble all at once. Without the creator, there is nothing.

DB: The farmer trainees Fidel, Joseph, and Jeff were going through our training programs. We'd all work together, we'd go to one farm, we’d establish it, plant the seeds, then go to the next farm. We did the same thing on each farm. Eventually I started noticing that the crops were growing faster at Fidel's farm—I asked him, “what are you doing, are you using Miracle Grow or something?”
He said, “No, we have our dances in our greenhouses before we plant or work in the fields. We ask permission.”

LD: What about Quaker principles or testimonies—I see them as very evident in your work—but what is your sense of their relationship to your work?

DB: I think we work within the Quaker principles. In our program, I don't own the decision alone, we all own decisions, that's why our program is so effective. It's all of us figuring out what the next steps are. The principle of simplicity is a basis for our program—how much do you need to support your family? Community is a part of it, too—we are part of a bigger creation, and we are part of a bigger whole. Acknowledging the creator and the earth and how we all work together is central. We inherently live within the Quaker values. Our program is really based on social change through nonviolence.

LD: It's powerful because when you taste living on that plane of the testimony of equality, of community, you don't want to do it any other way, right?

DB: There is no other way.

No comments: