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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2011


Big Horses and a Big Tree

Horsepower for growing vegetables. Plus Fort Bayard's "alligator" landmark.

With the addition of "Kate" and "Bess," two majestic Belgian draft horses who each weigh 1,600 pounds, the operation of Frisco Farm in Pleasanton serves as a harbinger of what small-scale organic farming may look like in the near future.

Plowing at Frisco Farm with "Kate" and "Bess." Each horse weighs 1,600 pounds and brings the farm to a higher level of sustainability.
(Photo: Kelsy Waggaman)

Situated on the San Francisco River just south of Glenwood, Frisco Farm is owned by Kyle Skaggs, who has provided organic produce to area residents for two years. Besides the Silver City Farmers' Market, Kyle also sells to the Silver City Food Coop and local restaurants and to coops in Las Cruces and Albuquerque.

From May through October he participates in the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, selling one share of produce harvested on the farm to families and individuals for $15 a week. Kyle provides 25 shares and establishes a baseline income for himself.

Tall and lean with corn-silk-colored hair that matches the manes and tails of his drafting team, Kyle, 26, was born and raised in Glenwood. In this paradisiacal landscape his growing up — working outside, swimming in the river, hiking and biking in the Gila — exemplified a great childhood. He would often assist his parents, both field biologists, doing raptor surveys. Kyle credits his parents, now science teachers, with showing him "the value of hard work and the importance of relating to the land."

Kyle Skaggs and his girlfriend Meggie Dexter take
a break from selling Frisco Farm organic produce
at the Farmer's Market in Silver City.

At Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., the future farmer pursued an ecology degree. Later, he spent time training to run cross-country and 100-mile mountain races. His trophy pile, although not on display, reflects numerous first-place accomplishments. Unless you were aware of these feats, Kyle probably wouldn't mention them. Nowadays, such self-effacement is indeed a breath of fresh country air.

During an apprenticeship on a farm in northern New Mexico, Kyle met Ann LeFevre, who taught him farming techniques. Afterwards, she moved with him to Glenwood, to help start Frisco Farm on land owned by his parents.

A neighboring horse breeder let Kyle use her draft horse before he purchased his own team of Belgians from an Amish horse trader. The breed is known for its powerful build and good disposition.

Walking behind the collared and harnessed horses with a plow, Kyle says that he "experiences their quietness." The horses, he continues, "keep me more in touch with what's going on as I walk the furrows, noticing things like soil moisture. There is no distracting tractor noise."

Using animals also means less soil compaction and having a constant source of fertilizer on hand.

The canopy of the Big Tree appears at the end of a two-mile trail at Fort Bayard. This alligator juniper is thought by some experts to be between 800 and 1,000 years old.

To keep the manure coming, Kate and Bess consume organic rye grass and legumes, supplemented by hay in winter. When they are working — usually four days per week — they are fed oats. In hot weather, the sorrel-colored team sweat profusely while doing heavy work like plowing. Aside from work breaks, their R&R occurs on acres of good Pleasanton pastureland.

As a local boy, Kyle gets chided by the older farmers who cannot understand why in the world he doesn't use a tractor. But, Kyle acknowledges, "they also respect my efforts."

Kyle believes that corporate farming practices — with its high energy consumption and heavy use of fertilizer and pesticides — will continue until it simply becomes economically unfeasible. He sees small farms like his own eventually being the only sustainable and economically viable alternative.

On his small farm at the moment, autumn field work is underway — plowing under old crops, harvesting red and yellow onions and three different varieties of squash and digging up sweet potatoes.

During the down time offered in winter, Kyle hopes to build a root cellar, burn brush and cut trees. Kate and Bess will help haul the logs. The rest of the time they will no doubt graze picturesquely among the area's pastoral splendor. And although Kate and Bess may resemble the Budweiser Clydesdales, you won't catch them promoting beer.



Another Big Species


Soldiers in the Ninth Cavalry and early settlers had a clear view of it from the north side of Signal Peak. Centuries later, the exact same tree — an alligator juniper (Juniperus deepeana) growing 12 miles from Silver City — serves as an arboreal surprise at the end of a two-mile hike on the "Big Tree Trail" (#755) at Fort Bayard.

Up close, the bark of alligator Juniper
does resemble said reptile and even casts a bit of silvery shine.
(Photos: Vivian Savitt)

With its checkered gray and black bark, the species seemingly resembles alligator hide. The intricate and distinctive bark could also serve as a fine pattern on contemporary textiles.

Thirty years ago, the tree was listed in the New Mexico Big Tree Registry and estimated to be 63 feet tall — with a circumference of 220 inches and a crown spread of 61 1/2 feet. Today, the Big Tree's height and age can only be guessed, but it holds landmark status locally nonetheless.

Gabe Partido, forest vegetation manager and a timber specialist at the Gila National Forest/US Forest Service, thinks if a core sample were taken today, it would prove the tree to be 800 to 1,000 years old. The coring procedure results in an eraser-size sample whose rings, magnified under a microscope, reveal age.

Ron Henderson, a retired forester who is associated with the Fort Bayard Historical Society, agrees about the tree's age. He also believes that the juniper remains extant because in the past, "it was too big and wide to saw down with either a crosscut saw or an ax."

In this way, the "Big Tree" could also be called the "big survivor," having escaped the historic fort's dire need for firewood.

Russell Ward, Silver City District forest ranger, explains that alligator juniper remains the preferred firewood species because it splits easily and contains far less creosote than Ponderosa pine. If allowed to collect on the sides of chimney walls, creosote may combust.

Alligator juniper is also popularly used by wood craftsmen to make rustic furniture. It is a slow-growing, hardy species resistant to bark beetle. Severe cold, however, does affect its longevity, and Ranger Ward observed a large die-off of the species last winter. On the other hand, alligator juniper is extremely drought tolerant.

Ward advises that those concerned with obtaining legally harvested firewood — not poached — should make sure that permit tags are marked on the cords they buy.

Ron Henderson, who also documents the area's old graves and homesteads, adds one last "for sure" attribute to the Big Tree's legacy: "No one ever hanged from or was buried underneath it."



Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City.
Her Southwest Gardener column will return in the spring.

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