We recently spoke with Jesse Harrison, our resident farm manager, about some of his experiences at Hanuman’s Garden. Here is what he has to share:
Q: What inspires you about growing food for Maharajji’s prasad?
A: Regardless of where I farm I will always bring Maharaj-ji with me, but it is especially incredible to grow food here because we believe that the ashram land is Maharaj-ji’s body. I always look at the photograph in the temple room where Maharaj-ji is in the foreground and behind him the feeding pavilion at Kainchi is being constructed. He always looks like such a bad-ass to me in that photo. He has a smile on his face as if to say that this is all a part of his grand scheme. I always feel that this place is a part of that and that he saw it all and is behind the scenes orchestrating this grand project. Now the expansion of his vision is finally really coming together here in Taos. I feel that the picture is especially pertinent now with the combination of the new temple being built, the pond and the farm. I feel like my role in that grand scheme is to make sure that whatever I do has to be fit for Maharaj-ji. This isn’t just somebody’s homestead-it is something so much greater than we can comprehend. Whatever I do I dedicate to Maharaj-ji and I remember that I am working for him and his goals.
Q: Why is it important for the ashram and its mission to have an on-site farm?
A: Our food source is one of the pillars of a sustainable community. Having an on-site farm is the most direct way to assure quality, dependability and security for our food. And food is at the heart of Maharaj-ji’s mission.
Q: What are some of the projects that the ashram farm is involved in to become more sustainable and to move forward into the future?
A: When I came on to the farm, my first priority was to get the ditches to functionally irrigate. When I first came to the ashram I would always be the one out there cleaning them. When I would mow the lawns and play with the water I saw that it was impossible to irrigate most of the ashram property. The road leading to the back field had sunk down and there were some low areas that would catch all of the water. Near the orchard the water would flow out of the ditch and just spill into a big pool. Then about 5 years ago Suzanna and Jean Jacques approached the soil and water conservation district about putting in two head gates on the acequias. They have been fully functional for the last two seasons and that has helped a lot. And now I have gone from being the guy who was always ready with a shovel to help clean out the ditches to being the Mayer Domo of the Acequia de los Lovatos and managing the water flow for 20 or so parcientes, or property owners along the ditch, that all depend on its water to irrigate their land.
Our next step as far as water is to wean ourselves from reliance on ground water and cut down on using our wells to irrigate. In the summer the ditch slows to a trickle which isn’t enough to irrigate with. But we always thought that if we could capture even that trickle and stockpile it in a pond, we could pump it out to the fields. A pond would also offer the opportunity for aquaponic fertilization-fish and birds who are attracted to the water would leave their guano and fish droppings and add fertility that way. Their presence will also help to control insects. Last year we began the process of creating a pond which will beautify the property and secure our water source. The final phase of its construction will be completed in the spring when we will add the finishing touches to its contours and smooth in a final layer of clay soil.
Another ongoing project which has been in the works for the last couple of years has been getting the permaculture plan for the beds implemented. When I first came there were lots of weeds, so restoring fertility to the land and cover cropping has been very important. I did a topographic survey of the land and used that information to determine lay, style, shape, length and curvature of the beds. Based on the contours of the land it has now all been key-lined, or tilled in level planes. I did some research and found that a chisel plow, a sub-surface ripper that doesn’t turn the soil, was the best implement. Some people say that we should have grated the whole thing but the slope is at least three feet lower at the low end of our field than at the high end. Because we only have about a foot of topsoil in places we would have scraped it all off in certain areas. Below that is an old river bed with cobble that goes down very deep. These mountains are young and as they grow they slowly push the river farther and farther west, away from us. The land that we are currently farming on was probably the ancestral Rio Pueblo-the sacred river originating at the top of Taos Mountain and irrigating Taos Valley. Now the levels are all set up for us to go to no-till farming. This is the first year that we will go primarily no-till. I plan to go at least five years without tilling. Cover cropping is a traditional method that is now being much better researched. No-till organic farming with heavy implementation of cover cropping has been gaining in popularity over the last 30 years or so. It is exciting to read about and experiment with new ideas and techniques as they emerge and it gives me the feeling that the whole world is learning along with me.
The next phase of growth has been to look at sun, shade and temperature. We have been planting lots of trees to create woodland buffer zones which protect against wind and excess sun as well as cutting down on unwanted cross-pollination (for example between types of kale plants). Shady areas would help us to extend the growing season for cilantro, lettuce etc. As we wait for the young trees to come to maturity, we have explored other methods for creating shade. One of the challenges of growing in the high desert climate are the large temperature swings between daytime nighttime temperatures. We have better luck with cooler weather crops because of our cool nights. It is easier to amend the conditions to favor them than it is to try and keep it warm enough for the warm weather loving crops like tomatoes. Last year we built a shade structure over one of our fields and it worked great. We plan to use it again this year and expand on it. We do continue to grow warm weather crops like cucumbers and tomatoes in our green house. I would like to improve its effectiveness by building a solid earthen wall on the north side which will hold the solar energy and radiate it out. I would also like to replace the clear plastic on the south side with a more permanent glass wall. We also plan to build a walipini-a dug-in green house of the type used in the Andes-in the high area of the land. We did a miniature version of this design to protect our tulsi starts last year and we really liked the results.
Our upcoming agenda for this spring is to complete four outstanding projects-the harvest structure, the root cellar, the pond and the greenhouse. This year I am also going to work a lot with compost tea and spraying it on the fruit trees.
Q: How do you see climate change or other earth changes affecting farming?
A: Growing food in news-making climate conditions is definitely neither stable nor predictable. My attitude always is-don’t be attached to the fruit of your labors, it is karma yoga. Do it for the Mother, and if she smiles on you, you get a good harvest!
Q: You mention a five-year plan looking forward. So are you in it at Hanuman’s Garden for the long haul?
A: For a long time my goal was to finish the pond and get the farm sustainable and then to step away. But now I’ve stopped thinking about that. It is amazing raising my family here. And there isn’t anyone else stepping in to take over the reins.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges about growing food in community? At the ashram in particular?
A: It can be difficult to get the consistent help that we need throughout the growing season. I have to work with whatever I am given in terms of sevaks and sometimes people blow in for a week, or sometimes just for a day or even an hour. I want to give everyone a chance to help out while also making sure that I am getting the needs of Maharaj-ji’s farm met. There is a lot of seva that would be great to have help with, but though it may seem simple, can in fact be so critical that something important can be deeply damaged or permanently destroyed through just one thoughtless action. Another challenge that I have met is around some of our farm sevaks’ attitudes towards karma yoga. People sometimes feel that work is the opposite of prayer or that they would rather be praying than working. I urge them to surrender to the notion of “work as worship” and to understand that especially for the live-in community here, seva really is our fundamental practice.
Another challenge has been to move beyond the idea of the ashram farm as a commercial enterprise. Last year we had a farm stand and I feel that its greatest success was that it got people out to the farm and allowed them to experience it and interact with the farmers and the land. But as far as being worth the time we put into it and supporting the farm financially, we would have been better off at the Farmer’s Market. Shoppers are encouraged to use their food stamps there and we can’t take them here. Though we distributed a fair amount of farm vouchers for free produce, people slowly stopped coming as the season wore on, even for free food. The produce rots in their fridge and they feel bad and don’t come back. They don’t want to waste the sacred food. But I think that the issue is deeper than the farm stand location. People don’t buy too many vegetables. I can get my two-year old daughter Scarlet to eat carrots and beans and peas out in the field but she won’t touch them when I cook them in the kitchen. She loves mac and cheese. “I don’t like peas,” she’ll say. “But it was your favorite thing in the field!” The easy energy in bread and sugar gets us all hooked. One of the reasons that people aren’t buying vegetables is that they just don’t cook as much anymore. Even to cook something as simple as our New Mexican staple, chile, for example, requires a lot more than just the vegetables-the butter, bullion, etc. Even the time for preparation and clean up (time is money!) requires a lot of resources. For those who can afford it, overpriced “fresh cut” food is the new trend because people feel they have something better to do with their time than to spend it in the kitchen.
In my opinion, we can put the farm produce to best use when we cook Prasad here at the ashram and feed people. Food goes bad so quickly-you set a timer as soon as you harvest it. We can work as a group to process and preserve large amounts of harvested food. Another benefit of cooking food in community is that it is inspiring to cook for a group and to experiment with new flavors, ingredients and cuisines. Feeding people is the basis of society-all have to eat. It is much simpler and more “organic” to put the harvest directly into the kitchen without trying to attach a dollar amount to it-knowing that it will be Baba’s Prasad.
To make the community model work, everyone has to get involved. I would really like to see more involvement in seva-farm seva or otherwise-from the satsang members who regularly visit the temple. We had a wonderful group last summer that would get together on Fridays and string marigold malas for the Farmer’s Market which was really helpful. But there has to be a general level of involvement on a regular basis for the whole flow from planting, weeding, harvesting, washing, chopping, drying, canning, pickling, freezing, cooking, serving, cleaning to be sustainable. And if it can work, it is beautiful!
Q: How can people volunteer on the ashram farm and what can ashram farm volunteers expect from their experience?
A: People who live locally can always come and help on harvest and planting days or help with weeding any time. If you live farther away your family could also plan to spend part of your summer vacation camping and farming with us. Farm volunteers can have any experience level but attention to detail and the willingness to work hard and the ability to follow directions are all essential skills. You would be on your own a lot-after getting instruction you would be responsible to stay and follow through with a task, but that is a great time to say your mantra, look at the mountain, breathe the fresh air, get sore, and do it again the next day!
People with expertise in certain areas are always welcome to come and plug in or be of assistance in some way. It is amazing how many broad applications there are in farming-even an accountant could help me get organized or a pharmacist could help me count beans! There are lots of mechanical and engineering tasks waiting for the right mind and set of hands. How about designing a hydrolic ram pump for the acequia that could help us pump up water for our front gardens? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to demonstrate green technology here at the ashram? Bio gas, a wind-powered water pump…the sky’s the limit!
Q: How can people support the ashram’s farming efforts?
A: There are several farm items on the ashram wish list on the website that it would be great to have. We really want the microscope because we make a lot of compost here at the ashram. Certain crops do really well with either fungal or bacterial dominated compost and it would be great to know which kingdom is dominating so that we can have the most effective application. We could also help replace soil nutrients by introducing bacteria that unlock nitrogen from the soil or pull it out of the atmosphere. Or we could cultivate specific varieties of nematodes, bacteria or fungus to combat pests. I have been reading about farmers fighting fire blight by putting a tray of bacteria in front of a beehive so that the bees pass over it and bring it to the flowers. So we could get into a lot of really interesting applications if we had the right tools.
People can also donate materials that they may have on hand like usable building materials for building fences, walkways etc. or leaves, hay, straw or manure.
Q: How can people support local farmers in their communities?
A: The three best things that you can do are to buy what is local and in season for your area, frequent the farmer’s markets and check out the local CSA’s.
Q: What advice would you give to people who want to start growing their own food?
A: Do it for the joy of it and in order to give back to the land. To try and turn a profit out of it changes one’s relationship to it. It is less of a service to the Mother and more like making the Mother serve us. All of the things that the earth produces, first of all belong to Her. Like we feel that everything here belongs to Maharaj-ji, so we don’t smell or taste the Prasad that we are preparing before we offer it to him. The Bhagavad Gita tells us not to desire the “fruits” of our actions, nowhere is this more literally true than in farming! Of course farming is a noble profession, but whatever one does should be in service of one’s land. You will get whatever you need automatically.
Q: Are there any resources that you would recommend for advice, seeds, etc.?
A: Fedco is a great place to find seeds. These days even organic seeds can come from a Monsanto field. From Fedco you know exactly where seeds are being sourced. University websites are great for information. Cornell and Cambridge have especially good sites. Local cooperative extensions are always great sources of information too.
Q: What is the importance of growing one’s own food-why go through all of the effort of growing, harvesting and preservation?
A: There is nothing like it. It goes beyond nutrition into building a relationship with the soil and with the garden. But it is pretty hard to compete with industrial agriculture. The last generation was so out of touch with food and farming that we have to double our efforts this generation-but that seems right to me.
Q: How does the idea of land stewardship play into farming efforts?
A: Giving to the land is the most important thing. The ashram land was traditionally marshes and ponds. It was forested, shrubby and diverse. When it began to be cultivated, it was turned into alfalfa fields. Now it is going back to a more natural, biodiverse state thanks to regular irrigation and the implementation of the permaculture plan which focuses on enhancing the land’s fertility.
Tell us a little about your background. How did you get into farming? How long have you been involved in the ashram farm?
I started working at nurseries in Reno after high school, then I went on to nature conservations and farming small gardens. I travelled around a lot looking for my place, but never found it until one night in Colorado I had a dream. In the dream I was shown that I would live at a temple in Taos. I was raking pea gravel. I woke up and remembered that on my only visit to Taos I had seen a Buddhist temple off in the distance. I associated the pea gravel with my idea of a life of monk-type service, thought it must be some kind of Zen rock garden and was sure that that temple on the mountain top must literally be the end of the road for me. I immediately started out to live out my destiny. I reached Taos and kept trying to walk up the road out of town to the Buddhist temple but people kept picking me up and giving me rides back into town, back the other way! Someone told me that there was a temple in town that served food so I came for Sunday Prasad. As soon as I got to the ashram, I saw the pea gravel outside the kitchen. Suddenly it all fell into place. It was November and the ashram needed help so I stayed on continuously for a year. The following winter I took my first trip to India and visited Maharaj-ji’s ashrams.
At that point there was no ashram farm. I helped out with the small veggie garden near where the cut flower garden is now. For a while we had a little garden where the new mandir is being built. Then Suzanna and Jean Jacques had the idea for a bigger farm. We started in the summer of 2008. I helped put up the greenhouse and helped out with weeding and things whenever I could. I wasn’t living here, but was in town going to college and working part time at some of the local nurseries. Reno is a high dessert too so I was used to the climate, but my work at the nurseries taught me a lot about the specifics of growing plants in Taos. But the ashram was always the center of my existence. The problem was that sometimes I would get frustrated with the ashram culture, which seemed to me at the time to revolve around sitting around and drinking chai, and would have to take a hiatus. I would imagine that people were looking at me resentfully because I was blessed enough to make the choice to do seva and was always looking for a place to help out. The thing is, the only way I have ever been able to be here is by doing seva. Whenever I am giving my actions to Maharajji I am always amazed at what I can do. It is like I never get tired. After doing seva I never feel exhausted or taxed, rather I get invigorated and energized.
Though my reaction in the past had often been to pull back from the community, but never from Maharaj-ji, I finally saw in 2013 that there was really a need for someone with my skills at the ashram. When I was in college I used to mow the lawns and then we didn’t have a lawn mower so I learned to use the tractor. Then I was the only one who knew how to use it and I started helping out more. Finally, when I was done with college I moved back to the ashram and, besides a winter with my parents when Stefanie was pregnant with our daughter Scarlett, have been here ever since.