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Old 10-10-2008, 02:59 PM   #1
Carol
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Default Living off the land: La Boca Center brings back local food tradition

Living off the land: La Boca Center brings back local food tradition— By Lisa Meerts — The Daily Times

IGNACIO, Colo. — Life has sprung back at the long-abandoned railroad stage stop of La Boca, where llamas and alpacas now watch a handful of farmers tend their crops from the entrance of the old general store.
Few people alive remember taking their lessons at the crooked schoolhouse-turned-community center, but Chester Anderson, who founded the La Boca Center for Sustainability a mile north of New Mexico, says a woman more than 80 years old who lives down the road remembers. Should his plan succeed, a new generation of students will enter the workforce armed with a trade disappearing like La Boca's pupils of yore.

As agriculture has dropped off, the Four Corners has lost its local food system, and because the land no longer turns a profit, development has consumed it, Anderson said. The cost to farm has risen with fuel prices but the market value of the produce, be it cattle or hay, has not.

"It's hardly an economical trade," he said.

The most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show farming and ranching decreased by 8 percent in San Juan County, N.M., from 1997 to 2002. The U.S. saw a 4 percent decline in farming and ranching during the same five-year period. Scott Shimmin, a statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, attributes the loss of farm land to growing communities.

"As cities grow and push out, they buy up land. That's probably the number one reason," Shimmin said. "And it's not just houses, it's also commercial buildings. As the airport gets larger, the strip mall, a new warehouse, those kinds of things take up pretty big chunks of land."

But Anderson and Roy Craig, the man who cobbled together La Boca Ranch from subdivided property, and a handful of others, believe they can make a successful business of the property and educate others who can continue the tradition. Doing so requires sustainable practices, many that have been abandoned or forgotten as society developed.

Craig, who has since died of cancer, turned the ranch into a trust and has it leased to Anderson for $1 per year. Anderson must show the land can support itself within 15 years in order to keep it.

The land has 90 acres irrigated for hay and chickens, goats, turkeys, sheep, horses, cows, llamas, alpacas and a peacock, whose odd cackle occasionally punctuates the otherwise normal sounds of the property. he residents, of which there are at least nine, will stock their pantries from less than an acre of land where they have cultivated about 60 organic crops. They sell the surplus at the Durango Farmers' Market.

Bevan Williams manages the garden and lives in an uninsulated bunkhouse built by cowboys who raised cattle when La Boca was a railroad stop. Now retired, he volunteers his time for a job he considers both rewarding and stressful.

"Without a local economy, there's not local self-determination," he said. "You're required to conform to whatever provides a living."

He and Anderson see La Boca as an opportunity to affect the economy, and in the start-up phase, they already see how their work has influenced the attitudes within the Four Corners community. The ranch has partnered with Fort Lewis College on different programs and helped the school plant 1,000 fruit trees. It was involved with a food security assessment, which showed the region could suffer in a crisis situation because it depends on imported food.

The agenda at La Boca extends beyond the business side of farming. The staff wants to start a trade school where students can apprentice or intern to learn how to farm, which requires more knowledge than simply knowing how to turn on a hose. This year, they have five interns who live in a camp beside the Pine River with an open-air kitchen.

Clay Hammond is one such intern who arrived at La Boca in May from Sherman, Texas. He will remain through the growing season, which ends in October. His plans thereafter are undefined but likely will include passing on the lessons he learns.

"I want to learn how to grow my own food and be sustainable," he said.

The bounty of scenic views and quiet solitude at La Boca lend the appearance of unending peace. Old cottonwoods, their trunks thicker than a person's reach, sway everywhere and the river bubbles through the property. Abi Allen left the construction industry to take advantage of what the property offers, which includes stress relief unavailable at doctors' offices.

"It's such a pleasure getting out of the rat race. The tranquility is priceless. You cannot put a figure on it," she said.

But that does not mean life at La Boca is entirely roses.
Though mostly supported, a few individuals have taken a dislike to the ranch, Anderson said. "Change is threatening."

Then there are the challenges of running a business, particularly one dependent on the success of crops, and the difficulties establishing infrastructure within the community. Anderson and his crew, however, find their cause a worthy one.

"People have gotten the attitude you can't grow around here," Williams said. He then noted the names of the surrounding communities.

Farm-ington. Bloom-field. Fruit-land.
In turn, they're bringing it back.


Lisa Meerts: lmeerts@daily-times.com
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