Dahlias in full bloom at Burque Bee Farms. Photo by Drew Harrell.

The semirural nature of the village of Los Ranchos, bordered on all sides by Albuquerque, is immediately apparent as you pass through its elm- and cottonwood-lined streets. Driving north of Griegos along Rio Grande Boulevard, you’ll know you’ve arrived when you pass the large, sweeping fields of the village’s Agri-Nature Center, which face the gardens and rows of lavender across the street at Los Poblanos. You’ll soon find (between large lawns that were once fields) newly established vineyards, and, as you drive farther into the village and peer past the fences, you’re likely to spot some horses, chickens, goats, sheep, and the occasional llama or alpaca. Perhaps less immediately evident is the scattered array of very small farms, often cultivating half an acre or less, that nourish the neighborhoods and community in sometimes subtle but far-reaching ways.

View from Rio Grande Community Farm. Photo by Stephanie Cameron.

Seeking a better view into the agrarian spirit that animates this village surrounded by city, I recently set out on a tour of a few of Los Ranchos’ smallest farms. My first stop was Loose Leaf Farm, toward the north end of Los Ranchos, where Sarah and Mark Robertson lease land within an old orchard. Here, they grow a quarter acre of vegetables primarily for their stand at the Los Ranchos Growers’ Market and for their twenty-two-share CSA that serves thirty-five families.

Even in mid-February, I was struck by the sense of abundance that permeates their highly diversified small farm. The renovated old apple orchard beside a windrow of compost; the small rain-fed pond and the menagerie of geese, goats, chickens, and dogs that roamed within their fenced sections; the gleam of the solar panels on the barn and the large partially sunken, earth-insulated greenhouse; and the short, orderly rows of garden beds all provided a robust sense of full-circle agriculture rare to see even on many small farms. Taking it all in, I understood what Farm Stand Thank and Trust owner David Rubin, who leases the land to the Robertsons, meant when he told me, “They are working hard to make a micro-utopia in Los Ranchos.”

Walking around the farm, the Robertsons explained how they use a minimal-till approach, relying on compost and chicken tractors as part of a biodiverse, soil-building strategy that undergirds their vegetable operation. Pausing beside a large pile of compost, I asked them how they’d characterize their agricultural philosophy. “I like to say ‘better than’ [organic],” Sarah said without hesitation. “People say organic and I immediately think of all sorts of herbicides and other things that are approved for ‘organic’ use. We use biologics, mostly, and we just try to work with our soil, keep diversity up and the soil covered.” Mark offered a quiet nod. “People ask me about insects,” he explained, “but with keeping [the farm] diverse, it seems to mostly just take care of itself. I’m not saying we never have any problems, but we never have to broadly treat with anything.”

They explained that since they first started farming in 2015, the farm has evolved as they have shifted toward a CSA model. One of the most pleasant surprises they’ve encountered along the way, they told me, is simply how much satisfaction they gain from getting familiar with their CSA subscribers each Tuesday afternoon during the growing season. “Really, one of the reasons we got into farming is to know the people we’re feeding and let them know us,” Sarah explained. “We want people to come and pick up their veggies on Tuesdays and hang out with their families and experience what it is that we’re doing.”

Left: Sarah and Mark Robertson of Loose Leaf Farm. Right: Greenhouse at Loose Leaf Farm. Photos by Stephanie Cameron.

This strong appreciation for community became a theme of my farm tour, which soon led me to the opposite end of Los Ranchos, at a section of the Los Poblanos Open Space that’s situated within Los Ranchos but owned by the City of Albuquerque. There, Celestial Mountain Farm subleases five-eighths of an acre of land from Rio Grande Community Farm (RGCF) as part of a microfarm program run by RGCF. Celestial Mountain Farm is a neurodivergent farmers co-op that grows a variety of vegetables and produces salves and soaps for local markets. I met with cofounders Stef Graner and Logan Gillespie, along with farm supporter Matt Cohen and farmer Andy Personius, on a sunny February morning as the team was planning out the season ahead.

The co-op consists of about ten farmers, and the core group grows in the summer as kids get out of school. “‘Neurodivergent’ can mean many things, whether it’s attention-deficit disorder [or] autism,” Logan explained to me. “There’s no typical [neurodivergent type]. . . . We’ve always focused on being inclusive for people who think on a different plane than what’s expected in society.” The sharp February sun forced him to squint beneath his black cowboy hat as he scanned over the stubble of last year’s crop. “We believe that diversity of thinking is as important as biodiversity.”

With palpable excitement, the group shared their plans to build a “vision garden” in their fields, which will be “pretty vertical,” with tall raised beds filled with brightly colored plants and plants designed to emphasize the use of smell and touch to help guide the experience of being in the garden. They explained that such a concept is a new approach “that hasn’t really been done,” and so they’ve been actively seeking grants to get the materials to build the garden. “There’s not a lot of farming and gardening accessibility for people who are visually impaired. We’d like to provide that,” Logan told me. “We’re trying to rethink how we are adapting our farm to be as inclusive as possible,” added Stef.

“‘Connecting’ is one of the major words in our mission,” Stef went on as we talked more about the greater vision of the farm. “Connecting to each other and to the community.” She pointed out how all the farming decisions—from what gets planted to how much money gets reinvested into the farm—are made together by all members of the co-op. Later, she mentioned that they have been considering ways to share a market stall with other microfarmers at RGCF to help pool resources and benefit each microfarmer. Throughout my visit, I was struck by a strong spirit of collaboration and their commitment to genuine inclusivity that goes far beyond platitudes.

Left: Riley Thorne, Seth Kominek, and Logan Gillespie at Celestial Mountain Farm, photo by Matt Cohen. Right: Andy Personius, Stef Graner, and Logan Gillespie at Celestial Mountain Farm, photo by Stephanie Cameron.

I could sense a similar sense of community appreciation as I met with one of their fellow microfarmers at RGCF, seed farmer Andy Jo of Space Dog Farms, who grows seeds and transplants within sight of Celestial Mountain Farm’s plot. Andy founded Space Dog Farms three years ago, after working with Tres Hermanas Farm, which is also located at RGCF. He primarily focuses on selling seeds from plants he has grown out in his field, as well as some native seed he collects and a few seeds, such as corn, he sources from other local farms. He also sells transplants grown from seed he has saved. Wearing paint-splattered clothes and an infectious smile, Andy explained the ins and outs of his seed business to me.

Andy grows out all the seeds in his catalog for at least one growing season before offering those seeds to the public. This not only allows him to filter out any seeds that don’t grow true to type but also allows time to build some climate-adaptiveness in the seeds he sells. When he buys seed from a nonlocal seed catalog to grow out for his own catalog, he waits a couple of years before offering it for sale. “After I grow it two years [the first year for seed and the second year as a trial of that seed], I feel like they’re acclimated, at least for me.”

As I listened to Andy describe his work, I sensed the clear joy he has for seeds and being close to the plants he tends. Perhaps most enjoyable to him, he said, is the design and branding side of the work, which he sees as something that both sets him apart and brings delight to his customers. “I try to do fun graphic designs. It’s all my dog aesthetic.” Indeed, with even a quick glance at his seed catalog or market stall, it would be hard to miss the cosmic canine motif. “With the packaging, that’s the creative side I like doing, and going to the farmers markets, it’s just the packaging I’m really proud of. . . . I can do some pretty crazy stuff with my dog in Photoshop and everyone at the market enjoys it.”

Toward the end of my visit, Andy drove us from the greenhouse to his field, pointing out all the other microfarms along the way with the air of a proud ambassador. The sense of neighborly community was strong as he explained how he and other microfarmers collaborate and help each other out, such as sometimes watering each other’s plants in the greenhouse or partnering with another RGCF farmer to make tea with some of the Moldavian balm he grows. “It’s good that RGCF has this farming program,” he mused, scanning the expansive field. Then, moments later, he added an afterthought with a wide, wry smile: “And I encourage everyone to save their seed, so you don’t need to buy twenty-five seeds for four dollars from me.”

From Space Dog Farms, I headed up Rio Grande for the last stop on my tour. Just up the road from Loose Leaf Farm, Burque Bee Farms specializes in dahlias and grows a wide variety of flowers along with some vegetables. Selling primarily to customers at their roadside stand, the farm has a neighborly vibe and a degree of farmer-to-customer connection that outdoes even the local growers markets. 

Drew Harrell and John Bigelow holding dahlia tubers at Burque Bee Farms. Photo by Stephanie Cameron.

John and Lori Bigelow, along with Drew and Andrea Harrell, run the small flower farm together on the Bigelows’ property. All four work in medicine (Lori and Andrea as nurses and John and Drew as emergency physicians), and they all started farming together in 2015. I sat down with John and Drew on some old top-bar beehive boxes under the shade of elm trees as we talked about the farm and looked over the field they soon would be planting. They began by explaining how they experimented with different crops until they landed on flowers, and especially dahlias, as a niche crop that they could hone. “The first year, I think we did two rows [of flowers] and did the rest in vegetables. What we found was that growing vegetables well, organically, is really hard. It’s really hard. And to make something that looks good and tastes good, that requires a lot of effort,” John said. Laughing, he added, “We’ve had tons of failures, but they seem to be less every year.”

Any previous difficulties were far from view as we looked over the orderly, productive  field, and I learned about the successes of recent seasons. Burque Bee Farms planted twenty-one thousand dahlia tubers last year, including ninety-four different varietals of dahlia. “When the field is in full bloom, it looks like a Dr. Seuss book,” Drew said. “There’s every color of the spectrum, it’s like the sixty-four-color crayon box on steroids. We have huge dinner-plate dahlias and little pom-pom dahlias, and we intersperse some sunflowers and we have three or four hundred peonies, and two or three years ago we put eight thousand tulips in the ground and five or six thousand daffodils. . . . It’s pure joy.” John smiled and agreed, adding, “We enjoyed selling vegetables, but when people buy a bouquet of fresh flowers, you can just see that in their face. They smile, it makes their day. It’s a totally different experience than going and picking up a bouquet at the grocery store or that sort of thing.”

Both John and Drew shared that their farm provides a nice balance to their work in the hospital. “My job requires being in seventy-two degrees under fluorescent light all the time, so it’s nice being outside in the sun . . . and to work with your hands and do something that’s not really heavy in terms of cognitive processing,” John explained, “it just sort of balances some of that mental stress we have on a daily basis at work.” Drew nodded, putting it this way: “We have a professional restorative responsibility for other people when we are at work, and this is restorative for us and we get to make something that’s really pretty. And at the end of the day, it’s just really, really soothing for the soul to be able to be out here.”

Part of what makes it so enjoyable, they both agreed, is the sense of community that comes from selling at their roadside stand. “We’ve met more neighbors doing this than I would have ever met otherwise,” John told me, smiling. They described how they post their farm stand hours on Instagram, set up their roadside stand, and soon neighbors and passersby start showing up. If a customer wants a certain color of flower that they’ve happened to run out of, Drew explained, “we can say, ‘Can you either hang out for ten minutes or else come back in thirty minutes?,’ and we’ll just come back here [into the field] and pick them.” This degree of neighborly connection has become a central part of the farm. “We’ve got this great community,” Drew mused. “I think the relationships and the community, in addition to the restorative effects of being able to work with your hands outside and make something pretty that people enjoy, is all well worth the effort that we have to put into it.”

Leaving Burque Bee, I reflected on the different forms of community building at each of the four farms I’d visited and, more broadly, the value of very small farms generally and to Los Ranchos specifically. Los Ranchos, with its metropolitan borders on all sides and experiencing the rising land values common throughout the state, will undoubtedly face challenges as it tries to maintain its semi-agrarian qualities. Thankfully, though, the village has encoded its support of small-scale agriculture in its most recent master plan. The plan outlines policy objectives aimed at maintaining a strong acequia system, curbing farmland loss, promoting agricultural education, encouraging home and community gardens, and achieving other agrarian-oriented goals. For the village to maintain its feel in more than just name, supporting and encouraging small farms such as these will be pivotal toward achieving those goals.

While the deep and widespread value of small farms is no secret, my Los Ranchos farm tour led me to reflect anew on the strengths very small farms bring to a community. One less-touted strength is how small farms can create more degrees of biodiversity through their many approaches than would the same acreage in larger farms. The farms I visited might only cultivate about two acres combined, but because they are small and so tightly managed, they are able to produce value-added products and a wide range of crops—from seeds and transplants to flowers and vegetables, and an immense range of varieties of each—that a single two-acre farm might struggle to achieve. Very small farms can often create more biodiversity than larger small farms of the same total acreage, not only because economies of scale can discourage biodiversity on the larger farms but also because many very small farms means many visions, many ways of thinking, many approaches to similar issues. Beyond this, I was reminded of how much even the smallest farms invest back into the community and the land, creating networks of neighbors getting to know each other in mutually supporting, nourishing ways. These four farms of Los Ranchos, representing only a fraction of the small farms in the community, provide a glimpse into the heart of what makes this small patch of city-surrounded land remain a village.

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Willy Carleton is a historian, writer, and educator, helping aspiring gardeners and farmers hone their skills and deepen their connection to the land through the School of the Desert Garden. He is a former editor of edible New Mexico and is the author of "Fruit, Fiber, and Fire: A History of Modern Agriculture in New Mexico." You can follow his current ruminations on growing food in the drylands at desertgarden.substack.com.