A local-food enthusiast and recent college graduate puts theory to work creating a family farm outside Albuquerque.
Fresh out of college and hoping to start a market garden, Richard Moore got lucky when his parents decided to trade in their cramped suburban Albuquerque, New Mexico, neighborhood in favor of a fertile, rural area. After considering a range of locations from trendy to rustic, Carol and Ken Moore bought two irrigated acres near town, where they planned to build a superefficient home. Their longing for a more sustainable lifestyle in a rural setting just happened to coincide with their son’s agrarian impulse. The concept for Moore Family Farms was born.
Richard graduated from Kalamazoo College in Michigan in 2009, where sustainability studies courses had gotten him thinking about environmental ethics, ecological philosophy and land stewardship.
“I was interested in sustainable food systems, and farming seemed a neat way to tackle it,” Richard says. “I got really interested in humanity’s relationship to the natural world.”
And he got more interested in what he ate. Richard was starting to cook more often, which led to shopping for local, organic foods at farmers markets and food co-ops. But growing things seemed a leap. “I had barely even gardened,” he says.
After graduating and moving back home to Albuquerque, Richard interned at Los Poblanos Organics, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) enterprise now called Skarsgard Farms. There he got a hands-on crash course in planting, weeding, fertilizing, harvesting and handling fresh food, and taking it to market. He even attended farmer Monte Skarsgard’s weekly classes on how to run a CSA.
After that year, Richard began looking around for a place where he could grow his own crops.
Enter Mom and Dad. They’d never farmed before, but they figured as long as they were buying the land, why not give it a shot? Carol and Ken’s move let Richard set up the perfect laboratory for his experiment in small-scale commercial agriculture.
Carol and Ken had long been contemplating retrofitting or building an energy-efficient home on land they loved. They found their diamond-in-the-rough acreage in the shadow of a dramatic volcanic escarpment. Small farms and former farms dot the area. Neither Carol nor Ken had any experience growing much beyond a flower garden, but Carol liked the fertile possibilities of their new 2-acre place.
Before they could think much about farming, Carol and Ken needed a house. They met Steve Hale of Hale & Sun Construction on a local green-built home tour. “We liked his style. We liked him,” Ken says. “He’s a bit of a stickler.”
And boy, does Hale know green building. Executive director and founding member of Build Green New Mexico, a homebuilder group dedicated to sustainable construction, Hale helped create the group’s performance-based green certification program.
The design for the Moore home evolved out of a collaboration between Hale and Carol. Carol drew out what she wanted in a house, then Hale took her ideas and, in Ken’s words, “made it a house” with stucco walls and a pitched metal roof—a folk aesthetic common throughout rural northern New Mexico—plus carefully sized overhangs for summer shade, deep porches and a detached garage.
The home measures just over 1,700 square feet, plus a heated work room/guest room attached to the garage. Porches add another 1,000 square feet of living space. Albuquerque has four distinct seasons, but frequent mild winter days mean Carol and Ken can be found year-round enjoying coffee or dinner near the traditional kiva-style fireplace on the patio.
Hale likes to say a home should be comfortable, healthy and efficient. That sounds simple, but he draws on both the latest building science and the wisdom in traditional architecture to balance that trio of traits. “We try to go for as much passive design as possible,” Hale says. “So we have good southern exposure, good natural ventilation. We try to mix high-tech with low-tech”—thus the photovoltaic cells on the roof. “I don’t try to make all solutions high-tech and mechanical,” he says. “I still use a clothesline.”
The home’s 2.5-kilowatt, grid-tied solar system meets most of the Moore household’s electric needs. They could sell excess power back to the local utility during daylight hours, but the extra loads of the farm’s irrigation pump and commercial refrigerators require a steady draw of juice from the grid. They’re considering adding more solar panels to meet that demand.
In this arid climate, where eight inches of precipitation is considered a good year, sustainability demands water conservation. Richard irrigates through an efficient drip system rather than the prevailing local approach of flooding fields from canals. The home also has low-flow plumbing fixtures throughout, and the Moores collect rainwater from the roof in a barrel.
From the get-go, Carol and Ken pitched in on the farm. “We like to say Moore Family Farms is a verb,” Ken quips, because the effort involves them all, although daughter Betty, a college student, lives close to the university campus.
“We didn’t necessarily want to get into farming,” Carol says. But somehow along the way Richard’s passion and newfound calling became contagious.
“Once you get your fingers in the earth, it never lets you go,” Ken says. Besides, he says, he and Carol were ready for a change—not just where they lived, but how they lived, too.
The sole full-time farmer, Richard often clocks 50 to 60 hours a week at peak harvest times, most often working alone in his tidy rows. Carol and Ken volunteer their after-hours labor—both have full-time day jobs—in exchange for vegetables. “I have a desk job, so it’s nice to come home and get my hands dirty,” Carol says. She and Ken also help staff the booth at Albuquerque’s weekly downtown farmers market.
Richard grows a diverse mix of vegetables. This year he has planted carrots, kale, chard, mustard greens, kohlrabi, a variety of lettuces, arugula, radishes, bok choy, almost a dozen varieties of tomatoes, okra, onions, eggplant, peppers and green beans. He rises at 4:30 on Saturdays to set up at the farmers market, and he supplies a handful of local-food restaurants. (He also works at one of them during the off season.)
For the Moores, farming is all about what they eat. “I’m connected to the food because my hands are in the dirt,” Richard says. “But even the people who buy it at the market have a connection to the earth, because they can talk to the farmer—me.” A strong believer in local food—and regional food for staples that don’t grow here—Richard talks about the number of miles food travels, the amount of energy shipping consumes, and ways to shrink that ratio and help balance the food/energy equation. Growing and selling in his hometown, he’s part of the solution.
Though he hasn’t attempted to certify his fields, Richard gardens using strict organic principles. And there’s the rub. Ken is blunt: “Organic farming is an overwhelming task. It would be so easy to have a monocrop and to drive up and down the rows spraying Roundup to kill the weeds. But organic farming is labor-intensive. You’re constantly battling what nature would prefer to do.”
Weed, irrigate, repeat—that seems to be the pattern. Richard understands the challenges. “From the outset, we all had the understanding that it might not work out,” he says. He’s still climbing the steep learning curve of raising a crop and fine-tuning the business profits. He peppers his conversation with qualifications and hedges. “This year is really make or break for me. I did some calculations, drew up the field, checked to see how many plants will fit, how many pounds of each crop I can expect. So I have my goal for the year. If I reach it, it would be a fine income for my mid-20s. But for the rest of my life?”
He lets the question hang rhetorically. “And if the farm grows, it would be more labor than I can do alone. And I don’t know how I feel about all the uncertainty. I’m not sure I’m cut out to be in business. So this year, I’ll see if the return is worth the risk and the stress.”
Balancing that clear-eyed realism, his love for the work shows through. “I enjoy getting out and doing it. I enjoy the harvest. I enjoy caring for the plants. I’ll always grow a decent amount,” he says, even if the harvest stays in the family.
Packed with green features, the Moore home earned a gold certification under Build Green New Mexico, a sustainable homebuilder group. Green features include superior insulation (R-31 walls, R-26 foam ceilings); high-efficiency furnace and air conditioning; insulated ductwork; on-demand hot water; compact-fluorescent lighting; and locally sourced construction materials. Carefully designed windows draw fresh air from one bedroom across the hall to the other. Contractor Steve Hale assured high-quality indoor air by using low-VOC paints and sealers throughout, installing low-wattage ventilation fans, and building a free-standing garage to prevent noxious vehicle fumes from infiltrating the home.
A great room sits at the center of the home, with the master bedroom plus a small office on one side and the secondary bedrooms and bath on the other. Low-maintenance tinted-concrete flooring contrasts the knotty alder cabinetry in the open kitchen. A vaulted, tongue-and-groove ceiling follows the pitch of the roof, drawing the eye up to a high, narrow dormer window that passively lights the kitchen. It’s also a cooling tower in summer, when the Moores open its operable window to draw out warm air. The free-flowing dining and living areas make up the rest of the great room, which feels spacious under the high ceiling despite its compact dimensions.
People say building a house is hard on married couples. Was that true for you?
Carol: We have such similar tastes that it wasn’t hard for us, but there certainly are a lot of decisions to make, from the hardware on the cabinet doors to the ceiling fans.
Ken: We kept gravitating toward the same things. We talk about “D.C.s”—domestic commanders. You always defer to the woman. But that didn’t happen in this case.
What’s your favorite farm-to-table treat?
Carol: All things tomato, from fresh sliced tomatoes to homemade ketchup.
How has farming changed how you eat and how you look at food in general?
Carol: Ken and I are influenced by Richard. Now we tend to eat more seasonally and we preserve the harvest
for winter. So when tomatoes are in season, we eat tomatoes. It’s not like going to the grocery store, where you can always get a tomato.
How has farming changed your family relationships?
Carol: Richard is the boss of the farming and he gives us instructions. It’s a different family dynamic than when he was a kid.
Ken: He decides what he’s going to grow and how to do it…
Carol: Then he tells us what to do.
Ken: He’s the “F.C.”—the farm commander.
What has surprised you the most about farming?
Richard: Squash bugs!
Ken: Somewhere it is written, “And the squash bugs shall inherit the earth!”
Journalist and author Charles C. Poling promoted sustainable home building and adobe architecture during his 11 years as editor of Su Casa magazine. He is currently working on a project about all forms of dwellings in New Mexico, from paleolithic caves and scattered Apache “tipi rings” to the boundary-pushing designs of modernist architects.