By Meredith Hughes
On a recent sunny morning, Silverleaf Farms employees were slowly and steadily picking peppers—a range of peppers planted on part of six acres under a conservation easement in what is known as Ventana Grande Smith, along the Corrales Acequia at the southern end of the village.
There was an urgency to the effort, as the weather was soon to turn much colder. Elan Silverblatt, co-founder of Silverleaf with his brother, Aaron, about 12 years ago, said that many of the plants being plucked had been re-planted after a late and sudden hail storm in the spring, “So we want to gather as much as possible in the next couple of days.” About 1,500 pounds worth.
Noting that weather predictability is a tough call, especially as close as Corrales is to the river, Silverblatt tipped his hat metaphorically to the global issues of climate change but said, “On any given day we do not focus on climate change. That’s not our job. But don’t forget —photosynthesis is carbon sequestering, and every day we enable that.” The U.S. Forest Service defines that activity this way: “Carbon sequestration is the process by which atmospheric carbon dioxide is taken up by trees, grasses, and other plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass (trunks, branches, foliage, and roots) and soils.”
Silverblatt further explains that Silverleaf’s primary job is “sustainability, maintaining soil health and biodiversity through rotation, and growing and delivering fresh local foods.”
Plus, by selling primarily locally sourced foods, Silverleaf largely eliminates the element of long distance transport, a key climate change issue. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, one bizarre long-distance product proved tough to get. “Pumice,” explained Silverblatt, “is key to our potting soil mix. The state with the most pumice in the United States? New Mexico. Could we get our usual delivery? No. It had to be brought in from Illinois.”
Packing materials cost the farm about 20 percent more, seeds were harder to secure, and gloves used for picking and packing also became somewhat scarce and expensive.
So, in recent months, COVID changes somewhat overrode climate change concerns. Silverblatt did chuckle and add, “Were a major non-profit to fund for us a solar-powered lab filled with intricate instruments precisely tracking changes in climate in the fields we farm — about 20 acres— we would be delighted to do climate experiments and garner data points.”
But for now, Silverleaf does what it does best —with 10 employees, and no sales staff. “We’ve seen that restaurants, grocery stores, our drive-thru and market customers —and we are indeed grateful for them— are already sold. They seek quality, which is not a hard sell.” Given the high product standards the team is known for, Silverleaf is able to donate major amounts of produce to New Mexico non-profits, much arranged through Seed2Need, but also through Food is Free Albuquerque, an offshoot of a Food is Free front yard community garden effort started about seven years ago in Austin, Texas.
A consistent year round Silverleaf favorite is “Butter Crunch Living Lettuce,” grown in the greenhouse at their headquarters, along with small cucumbers seasonally, and watercress. “Growing lettuce here in the high desert outdoors is hard, obviously” pointed out Silverblatt, clearly pleased with the farm’s solar-powered greenhouse setup.
Heading out of the pepper field, after taking a look at an acre of purple radish not quite ready to be harvested, Silverblatt reflected on the fact that the land on which all was growing has been continuously farmed since the late 1800s. According to an article by Linda Walsh in Corrales Comment in April 2018, “it was a vineyard famous for its brandy and with some vegetable production. Thanks to the research of Mary Davis, we know that some of the earliest recorded owners of the property trace their origins to a small coal mining town in northern France. The Lermusiaux family immigrated to the United States in 1887 and eventually settled in New Mexico and Corrales. It is known that by the 1920 census two families lived on the property, one of these families were descendants of Lermusiaux.”
In the 1950s Dorothy Smith and her husband Wallace bought a 1860s adobe house which became known as Ventana Grande, sitting on two and a half acres. And they soon added to that, raising cattle, hay and alfalfa, while both worked full time. Dorothy’s niece, Alana McGrattan, would later preserve a portion of the farm, 6.3 acres, through a conservation easement.
At age 91, explaining why she had agreed to the conservation easement, Smith cautioned, “There’s no turning back when you turn farms into subdivisions. People have got to start thinking about saving farmland now. When you look back at all the farmland that has been lost to houses, you realize that you’ve got to do more with what you have.”
Silverblatt decidedly agrees, referencing that “Acreage in Corrales costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Not to mention the cost of planting cover crops, which have many pluses for a small farm. They handle too much water as well as too little, improve soil health, smother weeds, and increase biodiversity, defined once as “the variety and variability of life.” All critters, great and small, in other words.
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity states that “climate change is likely to become one of the most significant drivers of biodiversity loss by the end of the century.”
Fortunately, goats are still here, and are eager to munch down whatever is left of a cover crop. For Silverleaf, they consumed about two acres of vetch and rye grass at Ventana Grande Smith. “We got the land cleared and fertilized naturally, and they ate well,” said Silverblatt. One hundred twenty goats —Boers, Spanish breed and Nigerian dwarves— provided by Max Wade’s Rio Rancho-based Galloping Goats— worked from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in late May, left their personal deposits, and worked the soil “like little rototillers,” as Wade put it.
Wade’s goats already have done a project for Corrales Fire Chief Anthony Martinez in the Sandia Bosque and will do more for the N.M. Forestry Division, taking on salt cedars and such —and they even will gobble goatheads, though not when the plants are fully festooned with said heads.
Meanwhile, the Silverleaf Farm Stand at Milagro Vineyards and Winery, started during the beginning of COVID, continues, posting products Monday, for sale online and to be picked up Thursday via drive thru at the winery. The product line has grown from veggies and wine to a range of cheeses, breads, meats, nuts, sauces —look for a habanero sauce soon, to add to the jalapeño and cayenne sauces— and even Vermont Creamery butter at $13 a pound. It’s not cheap, but “we cannot produce quality food locally at commodity prices,” as Silverblatt put it.
Other products returning in spring include custom-blended potting soils and plant starts, so that locals can try to grow quality food, too.