Liza P. Burkin

The Art of Growing Food: Interview with an Organic Farmer

Post originally published at Freewheeling with Liza Burkin

Armand Saiia is a ball of manic energy. Originally from Buffalo, NY, Saiia spent most of his nine lives as an artist in New York City. However, his jack-of-all-existence work has found him as a sculptor, painter, photographer, filmmaker, chef, restaurant owner, yogi, Qigong healer, wilderness camp instructor, and now– organic farmer. His life story is a tumultuous, bohemian saga that at 56 has spat him out in rural New Mexico. Now, his art has transformed from images and sculpture to growing food and running Desert Grows, a non-profit that donates organic produce to local food banks.

I’ve had the pleasure of laughing with, learning from, and working for Saiia for the past 10 days while wwoofing at a nearby farm. His passion for what he’s doing bubbles out of him in such heated force that I knew I had to get his own words on this blog. Thus, an interview:

Armand Saiia, owner of Infinity Farm and Desert Grows. (photo c/o desertgrows.org)

LB: What drove you to become an organic farmer?

AS: Well, I’m not really sure I was driven. What happened was, I went through some big life changes back east. I had been bringing sculpture to New Mexico for years, and I fell in love with it. I had always wanted to move here but it never quite happened. Then, I got a call from my painting professor from college, and he said, “Come out here, there’s this farm, you have to see it.” So I came out here, and it was more like an epiphany than anything else. My feet touched the ground and BAM! it made sense: this was the place I was going to live and die, and growing vegetables was the key. It just felt so important, more important than making art. It’s about people and eating, and it became a giant earthwork for me. It’s a giant sculpture.

Since I’ve come to New Mexico, I go to the markets, I have interactions with people, I sell my vegetables (that’s how I really live, from vegetable to vegetable) and I tell people about what I’m doing. People are very interested in the concepts of sustainability and growing local food year-round. I focus on growing in all four seasons to make a real, viable market– not something that just happens in the summertime. You can actually really live on this, and I want to try to feed as many people as possible within 100 miles. That’s the dream, that’s what I’m living for.

There were hundreds of little farms here, and now they just sit as vacant fields. They should be producing vegetables for people to be consuming locally. We need thousands and thousands of farms across the United States growing for local populations. No more of these giant, industrial farms; no more transportation, no petro-fuels. We need food that is grown organically and biodynamically, with an awareness of the cosmos and the blessing that each one of these little living things is. Then, we’re taking food out of the realm of satiating hunger, and we’re putting it in the realm of nourishing the soul– and then we’re back to art again.

How does growing food resemble art?

Growing is working with a live medium. {Gestures to the greenhouse full of bright green lettuce} Once you just had earth here, but now you have all these beautiful beds, and they’re covered in that fantastic color, and you get to look at it and enjoy it. Like art, first you have to conceptualize it; envision what it could be, and how it should be, and what’s going to happen when it grows. And then, once it does grow, you’re sharing it. I get to share it with thousands of people! It’s not high art that’s going to go in a museum, but maybe art in a museum isn’t so important at a time like this. Maybe this, re-orienting our soul, is more important.

Tell me about the genesis and mission of Desert Grows.

The Desert Grows office in Ribera, NM

We’re a non-profit that buys produce from local farms and distributes it in the food banks. We’re starting to get the local population involved in local foods, realizing again why it’s so important.  I’m trying to empower as many people as possible– local farmers, consumers, volunteers and wwoofers. 70 years ago they knew all this, 70 years ago they were sustaining themselves right here in the Pecos River Valley. There were 13 grain mills on the acequia (a community-shared irrigation ditch), being turned by the water that went through our beautiful lifeline, the little vein that feeds everything here. It can be done, it should be done, and I think it will be done.

My dream for Infinity Farms, is through Desert Grows being able to create yoga retreats and a community kitchen. People would come here, do yoga, get in touch with themselves spiritually, pick vegetables, cook them in the community kitchen, and then we’d all eat together. We would satisfy ourselves in the process of understanding how things grow, everything working together as one. I want to raise the money to build this thing up: a beautiful, high-end commercial kitchen that would be able to buy from local farmers, produce that food into value-added products, bring it to markets within a hundred mile radius, and sell it with our local label. Or, bring entrepreneurs in who want to use the kitchen to make their own product. Any way you look at it, I want a kitchen that sustains itself off the work that it’s doing, that buys from local farms so they’re inspired to grow as much as they feel they can handle. Fifty rows of eggplant? We’ll buy every one of them, we’ll make campanade, we’ll make sure it gets distributed under a local label. No bringing stuff down from Colorado or from California. Not here. That should stay there. That should stay there and feed all of their people, and we’ll be here feeding all of our people. This way we’re not moving food around, wasting energy and time.We’re a non-profit that buys produce from local farms and distributes it in the food banks. We’re starting to get the local population involved in local foods, realizing again why it’s so important.  I’m trying to empower as many people as possible– local farmers, consumers, volunteers and wwoofers. 70 years ago they knew all this, 70 years ago they were sustaining themselves right here in the Pecos River Valley. There were 13 grain mills on the acequia (a community-shared irrigation ditch), being turned by the water that went through our beautiful lifeline, the little vein that feeds everything here. It can be done, it should be done, and I think it will be done.

Three of Saiia’s four greenhouses, all planted and harvested year-round.

What are some of the challenges you face?

Money. Money still makes the world go round. And time, because this is labor intensive– if you’re gonna do it by hand, it’s gonna take up a lot of time. And if you need to raise money, that’ll take a lot of time. So I’m out there talking to people, going on the radio, having events, doing things. I’m stretched pretty thinly, so I need as much volunteer help as possible, but that’s difficult too because I live in a place that’s not close to anywhere, so people need to travel to get here. There are many dedicated people who do travel here, weekly, from the surrounding area. And then there are people who come all the way across the country to be here– we’ve had over 40 wwoofers just this year.

Also, there are a lot more hospitable places than New Mexico! If you really want to be challenged, you’ll come to a place like this. This place will chew you up and spit you out if you do not belong here. This has definitely been one of the biggest challenges of my life. The wind in the springtime will drive you insane, the cold and the heat and the bugs! It’s insane. The coliche [dried clay that makes up the soil here] that you start with and the amount of organic material you need to put into the soil to make it work… but look at how fast we’re making it. We’re making things change quickly.

Do you have any advice for aspiring organic farmers?

Be patient.  You can do it, you just need to learn as much as you can, and then forget it all and just do it. And then, the experience is going to teach you. But you need to be in a situation where you can be patient enough to let it happen. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve lived here for four years and I’ve lived here for four years off my vegetables. There’s an awful lot of luck involved, and there is a failure factor too, but it’s unpredictable. It’s good to make a lot of friends and have support. Everything I’ve learned everywhere else in life has made this happen. I’m not quite the spring chicken I once was [grins] but you know, I’m hangin in there.

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This entry was published on January 4, 2012 at 12:51 am and is filed under Food & Farming. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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