It was a blessed relief to hear the quietly passionate oration of organic farmer Don Bustos as he stood upon the land for 20 minutes to speak amid shifting rays of softening sunlight on an early August evening in Santa Fe, New Mexico. With dignity, he stood for clean food, for community food, and for food sovereignty.
Earlier on this crossquarter day the outpouring of farm news had been grim. We learned that the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by fertilizer and chemical runoff from industrial farming has swollen to an area larger than the state of New Jersey. We learned that despite scientific warnings the EPA declined to ban chlorpyrifos, a highly toxic farm pesticide known to interfere with human hormones, and to diminish IQ in children. We learned of serious labor shortages in the farm fields as immigration officials drive farm workers away from US lands. We learned that dramatic changes for industrial agriculture are essential now to reckon with the intensifying impact of climate change. We learned also that the suicide rate among US farmers is higher than that of the overall US workforce.
Without referencing any of these specific news items, Bustos acknowledged the larger system of which these developments are part. He mentioned the corporate industrial “militarization” of agriculture. Then with clarity and conviction he said that’s not the way to go. “We must grow food with respect. We must grow it in a way that acknowledges Creator and the spirit in the land.”
The acequia-watered Santa Cruz Farm in Española, New Mexico that Bustos now tends has been in his family since the 1600s. Speaking broadly to encompass all of agriculture, he said that his big goal is “to make it possible that our children can farm on the land for the next 400 years.”
Nowadays Bustos cultivates about 70 crops on 3 ½ acres. At that scale, he’s developed an economic approach that enables him to give attention to the wider world. He trains young people to work the land, and to keep alive the centuries-old traditions of family farming in New Mexico. He’s a champion for community food sovereignty and for food justice at local, state and national levels. In 2015 he received the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award, specifically honored for his work “in support of farmers’ rights and education, and his efforts to include farmers of color in the national food movement.”
When he spoke in Santa Fe this week Bustos said that in his farming he’s guided by three keys: the traditional rituals and practices of northern New Mexico farmers, modern organic cultivation practices, and the Biodynamic Calendar.
“The strongest connection with Creator comes,” he said, “when you have your hands, feet and knees on the soil, and you are working with plants.” “Nature will tell you. You will understand signs so that you know you are on the right path.”
“I still grow and save seeds from our crops to plant the next year,” he said. “Saving open-pollinated, heirloom seeds is really important, but it’s not a silver bullet to solve the problems of agriculture.”
“Food should be grown in healthy soil with healthy water by people who are healthy. Then you have right relationship to the earth. The silver bullet is for everyone to take responsibility for their food by growing it, or supporting the people in their community who grow it for them. That connection to the Earth,” Bustos emphasized, “is important for everyone. It’s one of the Pillars of Food Sovereignty.”