Corn harvest: a feast of horno-roasted chicos

Originally published in Taos News

On Friday September 5th at 4 p.m. students from Eno

s Garcia Elementary School and Chrysalis Alternative School met at Parr Field. They harvested red chile and corn, led by Miguel Santistevan, executive director and founder of the nonprofit AIRE (Agriculture Implementation Research and Education) and a teacher at Taos Municipal Schools.

They were joined by Jason Weisfeld, Pamela Pereyra, Jo Carey and William Roth, among other volunteers. Jamie Rivera, a Chrysalis graduate who now attends UNM-Taos, was there too.

“It feels good to come back and help Miguel,” said Rivera.

Santistevan used to teach at Chrysalis and helped start the school’s agricultural program.

“This is the third year we have a corn harvest at Parr Field,” he said. “The project is a collaboration of AIRE with Enos Garcia students, who planted the seeds last year, and Chrysalis students, who came through the season to work in the fields. I also want to thank all the organizations that have helped us like TCDEC, Red Willow Center and Not Forgotten Outreach, among many others. Muchas gracias.”

The photo contest

Last May the participating students received seeds from Parr Field so they could plant them and start their own gardens. AIRE is sponsoring a photo contest again and Santistevan encourages the young farmers to submit photos of their gardens. First, second and third places will be awarded.

“Please, send your pictures soon,” Santistevan said.

La milpa

The Parr Field Garden Project contains a milpa, a combination of native sweet corn, local purple “green” beans and native squash.

“They are also called the three sisters,” said Jason Weisfeld, a fifth grade teacher at Enos Garcia and one of AIRE’s ex-board members. “The process is known as companion planting and is based on the fact that the three crops benefit from each other and also feed the soil, which results in a very productive harvest.”

Weisfeld hopes that projects like this one encourage more people to learn how to grow their own food.

“Last year we had a Thanksgiving feast at Chrysalis with products from the milpa and the school’s garden,” he said. “We had pumpkin pies, bread, chile, beans, chicos…”

“And everything was yummy,” said his daughter, third grader Ilana Weisfeld, who was also picking corn—and eating a few ears in the process.

Her brother Kosmo, who is in kindergarten, was helping out as well.

Berna Valerio, a tenth grader at Chrysalis, says that this is one of her favorite events in the whole year.

Horno cooking

After picking the corn and the chile, students and volunteers headed up to Chrysalis to start the chico-making process.

The school has an horno, or mud oven, funded by the McCune Foundation and built by AIRE and Chrysalis students and teachers. Edward Gonzalez, of the USDA National Immigrant Farming Initiative, fired up the horno, where wood was burned for three hours— one hour for each wheelbarrow of corn, Santistevan explained.

In the meantime, students, AIRE members and volunteers feasted on chile, beans, salad and lamb stew made by Margaret García, Juliet García-Gonzalez and Pamela Pereyra.

Later, the fire was drowned with water (to create steam and pressure) and the corn thrown inside as fast as possible.

Once the last ear of corn was in, the oven door and the chimney were covered in mud plaster or zoquete.

“We must watch it for at least half an hour,” Santistevan said, “because at around 400 degrees the horno becomes like a pressure cooker. We need to make sure that there are no leaks.”

The corn stayed in the oven until the following morning, when it was opened at 9 a.m.

“There were around thirty people,” said Pamela Pereyra. “We ate lots of chicos and took some home. This is an amazing project, a great way to reconnect with the land and to show kids how food is produced. They need to know that it doesn’t come out of a plastic bag from the supermarket. Someone has to work hard for it!”

There were also plenty of chicos left. They were tied into ristras and hung to dry so they will be ready for Thanksgiving.

“Then we will have another feast,” Pereyra said.

A message from Santistevan

Santistevan is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Biology at the University of New Mexico. He is a Taos native whose family has lived in northern New Mexico for hundreds of years.

“We need to study and apply our elders’ agricultural methods,” he said. “Taos Pueblo is the oldest civilization in the United States and it is the oldest for a reason—they figured out how to live in balance with their environment. They were delicate on the land; they grew beans, corn, squash, lentils, garbanzos, and onions, using a secano style of agriculture (dry land farming). Let’s learn from them to take our food from field to table and grow staple, hardy crops that will allow us to have a healthy diet.”

Santisevan is a firm believer in sustainable agriculture

“We also need to recharge our aquifers and feed the soil with sane agriculture,” he said. “Home-scale sustainable living can solve so many problems…and the solution is right under our feet.”

To learn more about AIRE visit its website