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Healthy Horizons

The Mesilla Valley's only certified organic produce and herb farm and one of the state's leading producers of medicinal herbs, Mysterious Horizons Farms specializes in growing healthy.

By Jeff Berg

 

You might say Jeff Graham's professional career has revolved around "planting" for many years. A member of the Graham family who came to Las Cruces and opened and operated the Graham Mortuary since 1911, Jeff Graham, although never a licensed mortician, did manage the family business for years.

Jeff Graham at his Mysterious Horizons Farm.

But a career change took him from planting deceased folks to planting live things, mainly herbs, flowers and vegetables. And he now operates the only certified organic produce and herb farm in the Las Cruces area, Mysterious Horizons Farm.

A visit to the farm will put you in touch with three beautiful herbal gardens, all of which are done with the guidance of feng shui, with an ever-extending vegetable patch, and with a variety of flowers, both edible and decorative. These plants cover nearly two acres at Graham's home, just west of Las Cruces, at the base of Picacho Peak. Adjacent to the small plants are nine acres of big ones, namely pecan trees, which are in their last year of transition before being certified fully organic.

It's been a slow but steady process for Graham, who is just now starting to see the financial fruit of his labors.

Graham points toward the pecan orchard as he speaks of the continuing water issues that the farmers in this area face. He explains, "We use micro-sprayers, which are far more effective than flooding" (a common practice among area growers).

Which is a good thing, since Graham's farm is part of EBID, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

Why is that good? "This season we were allotted 14 acre inches of water, which is not quite the four acre feet that we have gotten in the past." Spray a little, save a lot.

Yarrow, flax, lemongrass, hollyhocks and honeysuckle are some of the herbs in his wife Mary's healing garden, one of three herb patches at Mysterious Horizons Farm. It is planted in what is called "water style," with the use of flowing plants such as grasses and certain flowers. This spot is marked by a wooden arbor with a bench within. Upon the front of the arch is etched part of a biblical quote, a line from Matthew 11:28, which reads, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."

"There is also some medicinal lemon thyme and a few edible flowers here," Graham points out.

A patch of sunflowers, as well as coneflowers and sand cherries are used to attract birds, which of course help to keep the bug population down, thus lessening the need for toxic pesticides.

"It's funny," Graham says, "but when we went organic, the variety of birds that we saw doubled."

Predatory type bugs are also used as a different form of insecticide (the worst pun you will see all week). Amazingly, rabbits rarely bother the veggies and herbs, preferring the tall grasses that offer cover and fodder in the nearby pecan trees.

Graham recalls, "There was one jackrabbit that I had trouble with for a while but now that the grass is back, I won't need the shotgun. My biggest problem is gophers." Indeed there is evidence of the homely rodent in some of the veggie patches, and thus far, all but one has evaded Graham's attempts to get them to move elsewhere.

The second of the three gardens is a "power garden," and is filled with more herbs and honeysuckle, along with some irises. This garden works with the "nine points of the feng shui bagua," offering, for example, self-empowerment through the use of deep red or violet flowers, health from white ones, and wisdom via yellow blooms.

The third herb garden—"This one is mine," he says—contains what Graham describes as "women's herbs," mostly of the healing and fragrant variety. Most of the plants here can be used as herbal remedies for various ailments encountered by the female of our species. Graham points out a few of the numerous types of medicinal plants in this patch: "French tarragon, foxglove, pleurisy root, anise, dill, snapdragons." He pauses at a lovage plant and says, "Chefs prefer this to celery, since there is more 'wow' to the taste." The lovage grows near the catnip, marshmallow and the Queen Anne Lace. All told, Graham grows about 75 different herbs.

 

How did he get started in all this? "I started working with an uncle when I was six years old," Graham replies. "He took care of the grounds at the mortuary, and I learned from him."

Graham, who has a degree in wildlife biology, also worked with a man named Fred Hough, who once had a "pick your own" operation in Las Cruces.

For a time, however, Graham left the area. He worked at a racetrack, a feed lot in California, a B Square store in Farmington and a ranch in Texas, before settling back in Las Cruces, where he managed the family mortuary for a number of years.

It was in 1996 that he bought the land for the farm, and began tending the orchard. The organic operation began in earnest in 2001.

"I was taking care of the pecans, getting them ready for the drought to take them out," Graham recalls. The trees now look quite healthy and content, however.

He also built the home that he shares with his wife Mary, who is a nurse, their two daughters, three dogs, two cats and a miniature donkey, which he is not overly fond of.

The donkey is Mary's pet, an affectionate, friendly beast that she brought home in the back seat of her car. "He thinks he's a dog," she says, as she strokes the donkey's muzzle. "All of my friends at work think I have a hairy ass," she quips as Graham heads for the next part of this tiny oasis. He shakes his head as the "dog-key" trots happily off behind one of his canine cousins.

There is more lavender, some bachelor buttons, and raspberries, whose leaves are used for mouth and throat soreness and to "make childbirth easier." He leads the way past the garlic chives and sweet grass, which he makes into smudging braids, and to the edge of the vegetable area.

 

This part of the organic plot is the source of the only Community Sustained Agriculture (CSA) project in the Las Cruces area. CSAs are kind of like playing in the "futures" of the stock market, except with fresh organic food being the prize.

Lucky subscribers to the Mysterious Horizons CSA pay an upfront fee and become members. In exchange, they receive the benefit of getting the freshest local produce available, throughout the growing season. The Mysterious Horizons CSA presently charges $300 for a full share for the season (May through November), and $150 for a half-share, which still provides an incredible amount of fresh produce every week.

Graham currently has enough subscribers/members, but is starting a waiting list. As of mid-June, the harvest had yielded any number and types of greens, radishes, turnips, herbs (subscribers get to select a different one each week), squash and, of course, zucchini (which Graham warns will be omnipresent in future weekly distributions).

"Six years ago, we started with five rows of vegetables, and have expanded every year since," he says. There are plots of kale, beets, melons, pumpkins, carrots, eggplant and several varieties of tomatoes. He has run out of space for adding crops right now, but is talking to a neighbor about using an adjoining horse pasture.

The CSA started in 2005, but by Graham's own admission, it was kind of a disaster. Besides dealing with a bad case of a plant disease called curly top, which took out the squash and zukes, he didn't quite have all of the logistics worked out that would have made the program a success. An earlier CSA based in Mesilla Park did very well its first year, supplying subscribers with a bountiful harvest of items similar to Mysterious Horizons, but water issues scuttled the program, when it was discovered that one of the wells on the farm was afflicted with salt.

"This year is 10 times better than last year," Graham says. "I figured that having 15 core members would make sure that we succeed, and currently I have 45. Any leftovers that I have, I can take to the Sunland Park Farmers Market [every Saturday morning at Ardovino's Desert Crossing, just behind the Sunland Park Racetrack] and sell it there. I have also been talking with Toucan Market about supplying them with some stuff on weekends."

Graham also sets up at the Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market, but that has not always been successful. He describes his initial attempts at peddling organics in Las Cruces: "I couldn't sell anything there, and I finally figured out that it was because I wasn't marketing to the right people. The other growers at the market would sell their stuff for 50 cents a pound, but mine wouldn't go at $1.50, because it is more expensive, since it is organic.

"But then I would go to a market in Albuquerque and sell everything I brought. I would make $50 in Las Cruces, but in Albuquerque, I would make $600. So, what I have found out is that with the CSA, I have the same kinds of customers that I had in Albuquerque, those who are well-educated. People aren't ready to pay for (organics) around here, and they are unaware of the health benefits."

 

Another moneymaker, albeit a smaller one for Mysterious Horizons, are the medicinal herbs. Graham has one of, if not the most, varied and largest selection of health-related plants of anyone in the state.

"Herbs are my passion, but the CSA pays the bills," he says, adding, "The herbs are catching on, however."

Local herbalist Deborah Brandt helped Graham with guidance as to what herbs would have the best market. There has been some surprise as to how much and how many of the herbs he has planted, but so far, the market is holding its own. One of his bigger clients is the Herb Store, located in Albuquerque.

"This is my pride and joy," Graham says, stopping next to a small patch of an undistinguished-looking flora, which turns out to be the slightly notorious Chinese ephedra. It was in the news not long ago because the FDA banned the use of diet tablets that were using this medicinal herb.

The growing of the twig-like plant remains legal, and it is one of the most vital herbs for use in Chinese medicine. "I am one of the few growers to still have it available. It is good for the lungs, but can be deadly if used by itself."

Another growing source of income is a link to a Web site called Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org). This site lists hundreds of CSA-type organizations around the country, and Mysterious Horizons has a page that lists some of Graham's dried herbs that are for sale by mail. Graham is also working on the production of various herbal glycerites and infused oils.

As he walks back through the gardens and plots, it seems that this farm would be an awful lot of work for one person, but Graham does have some help from others. Besides Mary, he says, "I have one helper, a 50-plus mom who has returned to school for her horticulture degree. I also have an NMSU student who works 15 hours a week, and my nephew was helping until he recently left for Japan."

And, organic farmer wannabes, Mysterious Horizons is looking for an intern. You can contact Jeff Graham at the number at the end of the article.

Back at the Graham house, there is no mystery about where the name Mysterious Horizons came from. Graham explains, "When we first bought the place, it was for the orchard. Then we built the house, and then the gardens. Every year things change direction a bit, so the answer is 'over the horizon,' as to where it is going next."

 

Mysterious Horizons farm is located at 3630 Sparrow Road, Las Cruces; the mailing address is PO Box 741, Fairacres, NM 88033. For more information or to get on the waiting list for the farm's 2007 CSA program, call 524-7898. You can also visit the farm's Web site at www.zianet.com/mysterioushorizons, or email farmerjeff@zianet.com.

 

Senior writer Jeff Berg owns what amounts to a half-share in the Mysterious Horizons CSA, since he splits the cost of the membership with some friends. Even with that, he says, he ends up giving some of the produce that he receives to neighbors every week. If you want to become his neighbor, he lives in Las Cruces.

 

 

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