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Living Close to the Land on One Acre – An Interview with Lee Bentley of Magpie Farms

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops,
but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”   ~ Masanobu Fukuoka


The magpies sat in the apple tree that sheltered the corn. They were large and thick and daring. The birds considered us with their ridiculously intelligent eyes.

“They were watching like that in the spring when I planted the corn,” said Lee Bentley. “The minute I turned my back they dropped to the ground, picked up the seed and were gone. They are a real problem.”

“Remember, in Permaculture, the problem is the solution,” I told him.

“That’s right. You just have to sit and observe long enough,” he concluded. “My ideology, if I had one, is look closely.” He walked toward the gate, stopped and turned. “You know, that part is just the part I love about this place. It’s just not quite civilized. It has the gloss of civilization.” And he waved his hand through the air. “Want to see some bears?”

PORCH 9-9-2005 11-31-55 PM 1280x960

One Acre

Magpie Farms sits on one oddly-shaped acre in El Salto at an agriculturally challenging 7,800 feet. A small, intermittent creek has cut a shallow path through the acre giving the small pasture a rolling feel. Towering cottonwoods and dark green willows shade most of the property.

To the north is a clear view of Flag Mountain. The aspen on its slopes were just beginning to yellow.

When I arrived Lee was sitting, with his cane, on the porch under the veranda stroking his thin gray ponytail…that he insists is “soft, full, handsome brunette, some might even say Noble.”

Who am I to say different?

He chastised me for being right on time. “Can’t you be just five minutes late after all the time you’ve spent in Taos? It’s like you’re disrespecting the culture, man!”

It was nice to see him again.

Several Aracauna chickens roosted on the porch. Several more picked at the straw near where the two llamas stood, sniffing the air in my direction. A Cooper’s hawk appeared from the cottonwoods to consider the chickens.

They gave us a look and thought better of it. Along with the magpie-troubled corn, Lee is growing tomatoes, chard, onions, squash and chilies.

Lee used to own Acorn Graphics in Taos. That’s where I had first met him. His real passion however is becoming as close to one with the land of northern New Mexico as is possible and then sharing that knowledge with the young.

“Oh…I’m so optimistic about the youth. They’re far more advanced than we are.”

You can see right away that Magpie Farms is more of a spiritual practice than anything else.

Lee came to El Salto in 1972. He was twenty-nine years old then and had been teaching art in Florida.

“It was the easiest job in the world, he said.” But, one day, he up and decided he was moving to New Mexico. “I didn’t care what the consequences were. I’d fallen head-over-heels in love with this place. You know, like teenager love, when you just can’t see straight. In those days Taos was like a circus. There were painted busses, chickens under people’s arms in the plaza, people selling jewelry everywhere. I’d never seen anything like it.”

He wasn’t looking back.

“It was very difficult to leave the south. The world down there bordered the Mason-Dixon Line and the Mississippi. Everything outside was degenerative. I had no intention of becoming a marginal person in the south. Why do that when I could be extraordinary in New Mexico?”

When he and his then-wife first came across the acre in El Salto there was nothing on it. “All the trees had been cut down for the sheep and the firewood.” The house, last owned by Avelino and Francesquita Martinez in the 1930s was in ruins and had been written off the tax roles as uninhabitable.

“Everyone had outhouses and carried water. That’s what we did. We were poor. Everyone was poor. I jumped into that life feet first.”



Lee quickly developed a relationship with Juan Valdez who taught him how to make adobes to rebuild the house. Mr. Valdez gave Lee a crash course in rural New Mexico survival living. With that in mind Lee set out to become friends and neighbors with the people of Arroyo Seco and the El Salto road. “Community is hard work,” he said. “Like a lot of people then, I wanted to get away from the modern world, mix with the old and find a new way. My being – just being and being free is an act of rebellion.”

With the aid of Mr. Valdez and several other of his new neighbors, Lee set to work on the house and built everything using old northern New Mexico techniques. The first thing was to cut new vigas for the roof – and to actually make a roof because there wasn’t one. Then he rebuilt the interior walls, making them fat with jacal.

“Thoreau was my guiding north star through it all. Remember? He was very into building your own house, growing a garden, looking at nature and finding out who you are in the process.”

“Did you find out who you are?” I asked.

“Oh yes. Oh yes.”

~ ~ ~

B-DAY 2005 9-10-2005 4-58-53

Stepping into the house today was like stepping into a northern New Mexico cultural museum. The air inside was scented with a hint of fried food and even a bit of adobe. Matachine masks hung on some walls, Ed Sandoval paintings on others. An Old Majestic stove from 1935 dominated the kitchen and woolen rugs draped the chairs and recliners and couches. In the back rooms the musty scent of the llamas outside was present. There was dried chamisa in a pot on the kitchen table. The curtains, lamps, bathtub and furniture all dated from the 1930s.

“I tried to envision what Francesquita Martinez might have wanted this house to look like and so, as much as I could I went with the style of her times. It was a way to honor her.”

And to great success. You can’t help but feel that you’ve stepped back in time just a bit when you cross the threshold. The only thing perhaps out of place was the computer and the indoor garden growing along the south facing window. There were chard, bok -hoy, cilantro, basil, lettuce and arugula all set up on an inexpensive, manual hydroponic-type system. Just those little plants grew much more than he could eat.

“What does next year look like with your experiment?” I asked him.

He laughed. “The beauty of my life is I don’t have to do anything. It will come to me. Life opens like a flower and presents itself.”

In the end, Lee and I picked green apples from a tree to the south of his house. It was dripping with the fruit. The bears had stuck to the trees in the forest to the west, avoiding this one.

Lee’s cat slinked by with a mouse in its jaws and disappeared into knee-high grass.


** This interview first appeared in the Taos News on October 14, 2012 **

All photos courtesy Lee Bentley and Magpie Farms


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