A Woman Who Built an Oasis in the New Mexico Desert

A Woman Who Built an Oasis in the New Mexico Desert

For over three and a half decades, C.C. Culver has been the driving force behind the conservation and re-wilding of the quaint rural high desert village of La Madera, New Mexico.

Dark clouds hung low over the high desert country. Shining through the clouds, bursts of golden orange cast a glow on a roadside sign that read, ‘Pigs.’ I was in northern New Mexico – Breaking Bad land. This road sign was my left turn, leading me straight into the shadow of the Owl Peaks hills. It was here that I would rendezvous with our desert’s La Patrona, C.C. Culver, a patron of agriculture, ecology, and sustainability.

For over three and a half decades, Culver has been the driving force behind the conservation and re-wilding of the quaint rural high desert village of La Madera, New Mexico. Her tireless efforts in regenerative farming and community building had transformed this little oasis into a thriving example of eco-friendly living, not only for humans but also the beavers and peacocks, and even unfriendly weeds. Keep in mind the village, which this area is a part of, besides being one of the poorest regions of the US, it is also plagued by by an undercurrent of racial tension between the native or indigenous people, Hispanics and Anglo.

Nevertheless her experiments with agriculture have brought back many heirloom varieties like blue corn, sonora wheat, many types of chillies and even the amaranth millets to New Mexico. She has helped shape the ‘beyond organic’ movement, not only in New Mexico and the American Southwest but also internationally. She has been associated with key international movements like Slow Food, Slow Money, the Quivira Coalition, the Southwest Grain Collaborative, Qachuu Aloom (Guatemala), ancient grain revival measures and more.

Culver’s farm in La Madera, New Mexico. Photo: Indra Shekhar Singh

A day with ‘CC’

It is 7 am on a Saturday when I meet up with CC. She is in wet boots and has her task list in hand. I sat in her car along with Lucy, her dog and two cats, Charles and Puss. Before feeding her horse, she gave me a mini tour of her thorny paradise. Most of her farm is not cultivable due to scarcity of water, sandy soil or hilly terrain. In other parts, she let junipers, cedars, cactuses and even the desert rat run wild.  Swerving on the sand trail, we reach the horses.

Four hungry horses ran towards us, we quickly give them a corn and hay breakfast. Next, we have to activate the gravity fed water sprinklers. Here is where I notice adolescent wheat plants shining in the morning sun. They are unlike the “Green Revolution” wheat varieties, so I ask about them. “This is the Spanish Sonora wheat. They bought this over in the 15 century. Over time newer varieties came, and this seed was lost. Today we have revived this variety and also started giving it to other farmers to grow and to community members and restaurants as flour. This seed is part of New Mexico heritage,” she says.

Currently in the US, there is a growing craze for Sonora seeds and flour in the regenerative agriculture world. Before the Spanish, the Americas did not have wheat. So Sonora wheat plays an important historical-cultural role.

The farm and foundation, Owl Peak, is currently researching this hardy wheat for its cover crop, harvesting potential and its possibilities in building soil in the high desert. Conversation with bakers and restaurants in Santa Fe made it clear that Sonora wheat is growing to be the customer’s choice too.

Culver’s farm in La Madera, New Mexico.
Photo: Indra Shekhar Singh

Next it is time to feed the chickens and see the garlic fields. So we drive on the sandy trail towards the arroyo, and then to the chickens house. As we enter the farm, CC takes me down memory lane. “This was the first farm I starting to work on, it was nothing like this when we started. The soil was very bad, the house, toolshed and green house weren’t there. We made all of it, and simultaneously started the experiments with soil building,” she says, pointing to the different sections of the farm. From permaculture to Hugelkultur pits, she has tried to employ the best ideas to build soils over the years.

“People, eco-agri researchers and experts from all over the world have come here and tried to tell us what to do. We even tried to implement their designs and techniques. Most of them simply failed because the desert is a hard place and it has its own way. Over time I came to understand and live with this. We’ve had extreme drought for many years, and then randomly we received an above average snowfall, or a regular monsoon season, giving us just enough to survive. I try to observe, adapt,” CC says.

She quickly disappears in the chicken coop and the little birds are upon her. A mixed corn meal, two packets of salad leaves and some fresh water is served. In return we collect some of multicoloured eggs and walked to the greenhouse.

Among the fig tree and Japanese mustard samplings we talked about her eco-agri pedagogue. “All is this is for the community. Overtime we have empowered many of the community members to join us here for residencies in eco-agriculture, food, environment and art. We had an indigenous chilly project, amaranth revival project, blue corn project, and so on, but many artists and chefs have also worked on food here. Our farm has hosted ‘donation only’ meals, to bring the community together. A platform where people can meet and grow,” she says while plucking some green herbs.

“I like to support people, be themselves,” she adds.

Culver’s farm in La Madera, New Mexico.
Photo: Indra Shekhar Singh

When I ask about blue corn, she says, “We are getting to that.” Off we went to Dora’s Farm. There is no Dora in the picture anymore, but CC’s third farm is named after its original owner. She and her team manage 12 acres – a size which is considered a very small farm in America. At Dora’s Farm, she introduces me to a Mexican man, Roberto, the farm manager. “We have worked together as a team for many years now, trying to rejuvenate the place. I have removed the convention work-power hierarchy from our organisation. We are more like a family, working for this village. And I offer my family members here the same courtesy and respect as they offer me,” she explains.

I was getting curious about the blue corn, but CC goes marching onto the deep brown soil field, and calls me, pointing to the young corn plants. The entire field is sown with blue corn. “Because the arroyo has overflowed, flooding some part of our fields, we didn’t plant corn there. But we did use the fields this time for hay, beans and chilly. As we are in the International Year of Millets, I even am trying to grow some ragi and amaranth millets,” CC tells me.

It was already beyond lunch time, she invites us to the Sala, a local village cafe run by the organisation. Here Linda greets us. She explained ‘donation only’ model, for where you only give what you can give for the food. “This way we ensure that no one in our community goes hungry. All kinds of people come here, from addicts to cattle ranchers and an occasion a tourist or two, we offer nutritious and healthy food, till mid day,” CC remarks.

I pick up a bowl of red chilli and sit. I am moved with her world. Why would she choose to do this? “I do it because I can. In my life, I am free and now want to help others around me. And it’s not just the humans, there are beings I love more than humans too. Beavers, butterflies, ants and even the weeds in our fields, all need care and love. And I am only doing a small part,” she tells me and then points to a beautiful micaceous clay pot, next to the photo of her grand daughter.

“It was the legendary micaceous clay potter Felipe Ortega who drew me to this village. It’s been a few years since he has passed, but somehow this place feels like home. And this is a home I created for myself, by myself. I find peace and solitude here, and hence I continue,” she adds.

It is almost evening now, and I am still in admiration of this woman’s journey. She was born in the American South, worked on boats in California and sailed on the high seas and finally settled in the desert. I left with a hopeful feeling because her farm and organisation were regenerative in action.

She has nurtured many seeds and humans to reach their fullest potential, hence to all she is La Patrona. In this dog-eat-dog world,  empowering others to be of service to the earth is no little task. CC does it silently everyday.

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