By Robin Babb Photos by Stephanie Cameron

AgrAbility at Mandy’s Farm in the South Valley.

In 1982, the artist Agnes Denes planted wheat on a two-acre landfill in Battery Park, in the middle of Manhattan. Photos of the field, the “amber waves of grain” image from “America the Beautiful,” nestled right next to Wall Street and the World Trade Center are still jarring to see. We are not used to finding agriculture so close to our centers of culture. But perhaps there are good reasons the two should be more integrated.

Denes’s artwork, called Wheatfield: A Confrontation, was meant to call attention to what she called our “misplaced priorities”—our loss of a close relationship with land, food, and the ways our food is grown. In an interview about the work, she said, “Manhattan is the richest, most professional, most congested and, without a doubt, most fascinating island in the world. To attempt to plant, sustain and harvest two acres of wheat here, wasting valuable real estate and obstructing the ‘machinery’ by going against the system, was an effrontery that made it the powerful paradox I had sought for the calling to account.”

What strikes me most in this quote from Denes is the word wasting. The idea that planting food on these two acres—our most pressing necessity, our most critical resource—is a waste of that land can only be born of a nation that doesn’t see feeding people as its top priority. Thus, the paradox she is talking about: our most valuable land is not that which can grow the best food but that which can create the most profit.

With Wheatfield, Denes was pointing out how we’ve lost touch with the importance of the food we eat, the land we live on, and the ecosystems that we’re a part of, whether we know it or not. Forty years later, the distance between American city dwellers and the food they eat—even in places with rich agricultural traditions like New Mexico—seems, for the most part, to have grown wider.

In their 2020 book Farmscape: The Design of Productive Landscapes, authors Phoebe Lickwar and Roxi Thoren argue that the intentional placement and design of agricultural landscapes is key in any plans we make to create an ecologically sound and humane future. Indeed, they write, “reintegrating food production with domestic, educational, and recreational landscapes is critical in light of contemporary questions of food security and ecological health. We cannot understand or care about that which we cannot see.”

The “out of sight, out of mind” nature of the vast majority of farm labor prevents us from seeing many things about the way our food is grown: the chemicals used and the amount of waste, as well as the human and animal rights violations that often occur on industrialized agribusiness farms. On many American farms, especially those that employ migrant or seasonal laborers, workers’ access to fresh water, bathrooms, and shade to cool off in, or simply spaces to rest and eat, are few and far between, if present at all. The United Farm Workers’ strikes of the 1960s and ’70s sought to make consumers aware of these deficiencies—and they won several cases that helped to secure some of these benefits. But, as we know from any one of the many high-profile legal disputes and labor rights violations in the decades since, there is much progress yet to be made.

Katya Crawford thinks that associating agricultural landscapes exclusively with hard labor is one of the reasons for our troubled relationship with food and the land. Crawford, the chair of and an associate professor in the Landscape Architecture Department at the University of New Mexico’s (UNM) School of Architecture and Planning, believes that we could integrate more humane design principles into farms by considering both social relationships and the importance of rest, especially when it comes to agricultural labor.

“When you work together [on a farm], you create certain bonds, but I think it’s that time of rest when other conversations can happen, when reflection can happen. I also think it’s a time for spontaneous gathering, meal sharing, and meetings. . . . You can see the landscape from a different perspective once you have rested. I think that in today’s world, where people are treated so much as machines, where we have this insane relationship to capitalism—production, production, production!—I feel like rest is an act of defiance, and it is just as important and nourishing as food.”

Having grown up on a small farm in Dixon—the farm of Stanley Crawford, author of the New Mexican cult classics A Garlic Testament and Mayordomo—Katya Crawford now thinks about the spaces of rest that could be included in such agricultural landscapes when she considers that farm and her eighty-five-year-old father. “Everything outside was about work . . . and at night, you would sit on the couch in the living room. You know, those were the rest spaces, but there were no outdoor spaces to relax or lounge or eat or any of that sort of stuff.” Now, she says, she thinks about landscape design as a tool to make outdoor spaces more nourishing and restful. In her own backyard, she and her husband have designed and built what she calls a “napping pavilion”—screened in, with a mattress, perfect for watching birds or for sleeping outdoors when the weather’s nice.

AgrAbility apprentices Vanessa Church, Issac Willis, Shade Eldridge, Lee Poling, Zak Gonzales, Guthrie Potter, and Yazmine Batrez with program director Paul Ross (center).

Taking an anticapitalist approach to agricultural design that accounts for human well-being—both on the producer side and on the consumer side—rather than just efficiency would, of course, require a pretty dramatic restructuring of our entire national agricultural system. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t already some examples of this human-first design principle in existence.

One of those examples is the AgrAbility farm in Albuquerque’s South Valley. AgrAbility is an educational apprenticeship and business incubation program for people in New Mexico with intellectual and physical disabilities who want to pursue a career in farming. The apprenticeship program, which is operated by the local nonprofit Mandy’s Farm, spends a year with each cohort, teaching them how to grow food, giving them the resources and tools they need to work according to their particular needs, and setting them up to either work with an existing farm or start their own farming micro-business.

Paul Ross, the program director at AgrAbility, holds a bachelor’s degree in sustainable development from Columbia University and a master’s degree in landscape architecture from UNM. He says he is grateful that Mandy’s Farm has given him a “super long leash” in terms of how the space gets designed and developed over the next few years, as he now gets to put into practice some of the landscape architecture principles he has spent his career learning. “I like thinking of design and building as, like, a cycle that keeps informing itself.” Ross says. “And this is a really amazing site to practice that because I get to be the one who builds stuff and draws it up and then, halfway through drawing, or halfway through building it, thinks, ‘Oh, this idea was totally unrealistic or not helpful’ and then [is] able to change it.”

With those design principles, he has built a greenhouse that’s not only wheelchair accessible but specifically designed for workers who are in wheelchairs and those with limited mobility. In line with a more general philosophy of working smarter, not harder, some students from Central New Mexico Community College designed and built a remote-operated mister system to keep the plants in the greenhouse watered with minimal labor. This year’s apprentices, who started in March, are the first to test out the greenhouse, tending to the warm season starts like tomatoes, chiles, and eggplants.

For Ross, though, sustainable and accessible landscape design also means making farms that can continue to be workable and productive through our quickly changing climate. His plan to plant fruit trees on the west side of the field, closest to the ditch, is with the hope that they can provide both a windbreak and biomass in the form of fallen fruit and leaves in the future. And he knows that water shortages will be an issue in coming years, so choosing drought-resistant crops and trees that can quickly reach the water table is a priority.

“I don’t think we should just say, oh, you know, ‘Just throw more water on it. We need the food.’ That’s an important perspective to challenge,” he says. “And what kind of efficiency could we achieve if we really bent our will to it?”

Exterior and interior of greenhouse at AgrAbility.

Another example of centering human well-being in small-scale farm design is Lobo Gardens at UNM’s main campus in Albuquerque. Amara Szrom is the coordinator of the garden, as well as a master’s student in the community and regional planning program at UNM. Szrom, who teaches a sustainability studies class, uses the garden as a hands-on educational tool for students who want to actually implement sustainable designs for their capstone projects. This is not a new endeavor; Lobo Gardens has been in its present location on Campus Boulevard between Vassar and Girard for eleven years. Plenty of students have taken turns managing the garden over that time, adding compost bins, rain catchment systems, greenhouses, and other changes with the intent of making the garden more efficient. But for her professional project, Szrom is hoping to expand the one-acre garden into a neighboring acre that’s currently just grass, which requires a lot of water and doesn’t feed anyone. To Szrom—and, I’d wager, to Agnes Denes too—that is a real waste of real estate.

“All the produce that we grow here that doesn’t get eaten by volunteers, it goes to the [Lobo] Food Pantry,” says Szrom. “The food pantry serves fifteen to twenty students a day. . . . And so if we have more growing space, we can have more food. But then ultimately, I really just think [this expansion] should be a design project for the landscape architecture students.”

Top left: Take one, leave one seed bank and book library. Top right: Amara Szrom, program coordinator at Lobo Gardens. Bottom left: Volunteers at Lobo Gardens spreading mulch. Bottom right: Compost bin at Lobo Gardens. 

Szrom suggests that a properly constructed outdoor classroom would be a worthwhile addition (instead of the ring of chairs that makes up the current classroom), so that grad students like her can teach their gardening classes on-site, and other professors can bring their classes outside on nice days. If Crawford and her students have some influence over the direction of the expanded gardens, I wonder what they might consider worthy of taking up that space—might we see, in addition to rows or raised beds, a shady spot for the gardeners to take a break and chat? Maybe a picnic table, or even some hammocks? This might not be the most “efficient” use of the space, and encouraging gardeners to take breaks is certainly antithetical to the speed and productivity that many production farms demand, but Lobo Gardens isn’t a production farm. Much like Denes’s Wheatfield, Lobo Gardens is an experiment—a nontraditional use of space and time that doesn’t much line up with our national values of productivity and profit, but whose presence implies the possibility that, perhaps, things could be different.

As Crawford says, we need to consider the ways that things could be different when it comes to agriculture, and experimental spaces like Lobo Gardens and the AgrAbility farm could be our best tools to envision those changes. “I think we desperately need to slow down in just about everything that we do,” she says, “and I think industrialized farming is as fast as it can be. And the environmental cost of that speed is just insane.”

Robin Babb
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Robin Babb has written for edible New Mexico for several years, and has also been published in Southwest Contemporary, New Mexico Magazine, and Modern Farmer. She has essays forthcoming in phoebe journal and Conceptions Southwest. Babb is an MFA student at the University of New Mexico.