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A Visit to the Living Light Farm

organic farm taosEd Fenzl is a practical man.

“I like things that are functional, easy to maintain, going to last at least five to eight years … that’s my only criteria.”

The mustached former parks superintendent and landscape contractor credits much of the success of Arroyo Seco’s Living Light Farm to practical experimentation.

“A lot of folks have said this won’t work or that won’t work,” he said. “And I admit, some things are iffy but it’s worth the effort. I understand the limitations but I like to push the edges.”

Limitations we have. Growing food in the high desert of Taos County is challenging, to say the least. Success requires a different set of skills than in areas with a gentler climate. One of those skills is innovation. Taos County growers face a host of challenges, from soils that are very low in organic matter to a sparse and unreliable precipitation regimen, from overpowering UV rays to wild winds, very cold winters and a short growing season. There is more, but you get the picture. More than a few good people have expressed immense frustration after a summer of gardening in Taos.

To grow food up here you need to conserve water and heat, protect your crops from sun, wind and insects and build a soil that will allow plants to prosper. But it is not impossible. For thousands of years the indigenous peoples of the area prospered. The Spanish settlers likewise borrowed and discovered methods to ensure a reliable source of food.

Ed’s partner in agriculture, Kathy Fenzl, has become a familiar presence at the Taos Farmers Market the past few years. While offering a host of heirloom tomatoes, peas, cucumbers, basil and more, Kathy is perhaps best known for the hundreds of affordable starts in 3-inch pots she has on hand. In late June, I dropped by the Living Light Farm on State Road 150 to see what lessons might be learned from a couple who are increasingly successful at growing food in our harsh conditions. Sadly, Kathy was out of the state but Ed was eager to show me around.

organic farm taos

The first thing that hit me was just how small a place this is. On just three-fourths of an acre, the farm is crammed full of growing food. To the right of the main residence are two hoop-houses, anchored against the wind and covered in Solexx greenhouse panels, an insulating, windresistant polyethylene blend sheet that can be shaped to the hoophouse. The Fenzls overlapped the panels and affixed them with sheet metal screws. The doors and windows were from the Habitat for Humanity Re-store. Aluminet serves as an added shade cloth on top of the greenhouse, allowing for increased cooling in the summer and more heat in the winter. Inside the hoop houses was a forest of snow peas, yellow cucumber blossoms, basil, chiles and tomatoes bursting from Wall-o’ -Water structures. Outside were cherry tomatoes, artichokes and a great host of berries.

“Berries, like grapes, are a crop that is under-utilized in the whole region,” Ed points out.

The raspberries, blackberries and boison berries — a cross between the two — were growing wildly, sending runners every which way and sporting a large amount of yet to ripen fruit. They spread behind the hoop-houses and along the road where they were sheltered from the wind by wild plums. “You can’t expect a massive commercial crop every year but the fact is, even a yield every two to three years is worth it,” he said. Nearby, Ed created some acidic soil and planted blueberries.

“They’re growing and we’re getting berries, but it’s not going gangbusters yet,” he said. “The grapes on the other hand are fantastic.”

The Fenzls expand the growing season several weeks by starting their plants in the greenhouse they attached to the south side of the house. While the late winter wind still whips outside, Ed and Kathy have the summer’s garden well in gear, allowing them an earlier and more reliable harvest for most of their produce. When it comes to weeds, the Fenzls are selective. While they remove things like Canadian thistle, bindweed and cheat grass, they allow beneficial weeds to keep growing. Take dandelion, for example.

“Dandelion is both a food source and it has medicinal properties for humans; the bees in our hive forage this plant first in the early part of spring,” he said.

Weeds also got Ed thinking last year after reading the book “The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes” by Connie Green.

“I like the idea of foraging for your own food but I can’t be out crawling the hills while I’m supposed to be tending the farm,” he said. “So I got the idea to cultivate my own wild table here on the farm.”

In the geodesic dome behind the house Ed set to creating his own wild garden — and it looks pretty wild. Sorrel, chicory, purslane, fennel, wild garlic and wild leek all grow riotously under a fig tree.

In the front of the house, Ed was experimenting with wild Amaranth, a famously useful plant from South America that produces

organic farm taos
Construction details of a tent-type geodesic dome. Photo courtesy: Sandstein

nutritional stems, leaves and grain. Back in the dome, a number of plants have gone to seed, attracting beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, into the dome. “We make it inviting in here and hope that they’ll stay for the winter.”

To the side, next to a gurgling little fish pond were seven to 10 different types of mushrooms growing in wet vermiculite placed in opened milk cartons and laundry baskets.

“Seventy percent of the difficulty with the mushrooms is lack of humidity,” Ed explained “But I’ll have that figured out soon.”

There was hardly a piece of ground … or bench … or table … that did not have something growing on it. And it was the same outside. Rows of broccoli and strawberry spread from a patch of wild plum and currants to 24 fruit trees.

Just beyond that was a thick patch of garlic nearly ready for the turning fork. Mountain blue birds dart about scooping up grasshoppers while a Says pheobe hovers over the compact field waiting for just the right meal.

“We’re working to increase diversity and it’s been a lot of effort,” he said. “But finally, after eight years, we’ve reached the point where this is more fun than work.”

Ed and Kathy Fenzl can be reached by email: arseco-150-ski@earthlink.net or find them at the Taos Farmers Market every Saturday.

**This interview first appeared in the Taos News on July 15, 2012**

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