The Art of Growing Food: Interview with an Organic Farmer

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Why not put my journalism degree to some use?

Armand Saiia is a ball of manic energy. Originally from Buffalo, NY, Saiia spent most of his nine lives as an artist in New York City. However, his jack-of-all-existence work has found him as a sculptor, painter, photographer, filmmaker, chef, restaurant owner, yogi, Qigong healer, wilderness camp instructor, and now– organic farmer. His life story is a tumultuous, bohemian saga that at 56 has spat him out in rural New Mexico. Now, his art has transformed from images and sculpture to growing food and running Desert Grows, a non-profit that donates organic produce to local food banks.

I’ve had the pleasure of laughing with, learning from, and working for Saiia for the past 10 days while wwoofing at a nearby farm. His passion for what he’s doing bubbles out of him in such heated force that I knew I had to get his own words on this blog. Thus, an interview:

Armand Saiia, owner of Infinity Farm and Desert Grows. (photo c/o desertgrows.org)

LB: What drove you to become an organic farmer?

AS: Well, I’m not really sure I was driven. What happened was, I went through some big life changes back east. I had been bringing sculpture to New Mexico for years, and I fell in love with it. I had always wanted to move here but it never quite happened. Then, I got a call from my painting professor from college, and he said, “Come out here, there’s this farm, you have to see it.” So I came out here, and it was more like an epiphany than anything else. My feet touched the ground and BAM! it made sense: this was the place I was going to live and die, and growing vegetables was the key. It just felt so important, more important than making art. It’s about people and eating, and it became a giant earthwork for me. It’s a giant sculpture.

Since I’ve come to New Mexico, I go to the markets, I have interactions with people, I sell my vegetables (that’s how I really live, from vegetable to vegetable) and I tell people about what I’m doing. People are very interested in the concepts of sustainability and growing local food year-round. I focus on growing in all four seasons to make a real, viable market– not something that just happens in the summertime. You can actually really live on this, and I want to try to feed as many people as possible within 100 miles. That’s the dream, that’s what I’m living for.

There were hundreds of little farms here, and now they just sit as vacant fields. They should be producing vegetables for people to be consuming locally. We need thousands and thousands of farms across the United States growing for local populations. No more of these giant, industrial farms; no more transportation, no petro-fuels. We need food that is grown organically and biodynamically, with an awareness of the cosmos and the blessing that each one of these little living things is. Then, we’re taking food out of the realm of satiating hunger, and we’re putting it in the realm of nourishing the soul– and then we’re back to art again.

How does growing food resemble art?

Growing is working with a live medium. {Gestures to the greenhouse full of bright green lettuce} Once you just had earth here, but now you have all these beautiful beds, and they’re covered in that fantastic color, and you get to look at it and enjoy it. Like art, first you have to conceptualize it; envision what it could be, and how it should be, and what’s going to happen when it grows. And then, once it does grow, you’re sharing it. I get to share it with thousands of people! It’s not high art that’s going to go in a museum, but maybe art in a museum isn’t so important at a time like this. Maybe this, re-orienting our soul, is more important.

Tell me about the genesis and mission of Desert Grows.

The Desert Grows office in Ribera, NM

We’re a non-profit that buys produce from local farms and distributes it in the food banks. We’re starting to get the local population involved in local foods, realizing again why it’s so important.  I’m trying to empower as many people as possible– local farmers, consumers, volunteers and wwoofers. 70 years ago they knew all this, 70 years ago they were sustaining themselves right here in the Pecos River Valley. There were 13 grain mills on the acequia (a community-shared irrigation ditch), being turned by the water that went through our beautiful lifeline, the little vein that feeds everything here. It can be done, it should be done, and I think it will be done.

My dream for Infinity Farms, is through Desert Grows being able to create yoga retreats and a community kitchen. People would come here, do yoga, get in touch with themselves spiritually, pick vegetables, cook them in the community kitchen, and then we’d all eat together. We would satisfy ourselves in the process of understanding how things grow, everything working together as one. I want to raise the money to build this thing up: a beautiful, high-end commercial kitchen that would be able to buy from local farmers, produce that food into value-added products, bring it to markets within a hundred mile radius, and sell it with our local label. Or, bring entrepreneurs in who want to use the kitchen to make their own product. Any way you look at it, I want a kitchen that sustains itself off the work that it’s doing, that buys from local farms so they’re inspired to grow as much as they feel they can handle. Fifty rows of eggplant? We’ll buy every one of them, we’ll make campanade, we’ll make sure it gets distributed under a local label. No bringing stuff down from Colorado or from California. Not here. That should stay there. That should stay there and feed all of their people, and we’ll be here feeding all of our people. This way we’re not moving food around, wasting energy and time.

Three of Saiia's four greenhouses, all planted and harvested year-round.

What are some of the challenges you face?

Money. Money still makes the world go round. And time, because this is labor intensive– if you’re gonna do it by hand, it’s gonna take up a lot of time. And if you need to raise money, that’ll take a lot of time. So I’m out there talking to people, going on the radio, having events, doing things. I’m stretched pretty thinly, so I need as much volunteer help as possible, but that’s difficult too because I live in a place that’s not close to anywhere, so people need to travel to get here. There are many dedicated people who do travel here, weekly, from the surrounding area. And then there are people who come all the way across the country to be here– we’ve had over 40 wwoofers just this year.

Also, there are a lot more hospitable places than New Mexico! If you really want to be challenged, you’ll come to a place like this. This place will chew you up and spit you out if you do not belong here. This has definitely been one of the biggest challenges of my life. The wind in the springtime will drive you insane, the cold and the heat and the bugs! It’s insane. The coliche [dried clay that makes up the soil here] that you start with and the amount of organic material you need to put into the soil to make it work… but look at how fast we’re making it. We’re making things change quickly.

Do you have any advice for aspiring organic farmers?

Be patient.  You can do it, you just need to learn as much as you can, and then forget it all and just do it. And then, the experience is going to teach you. But you need to be in a situation where you can be patient enough to let it happen. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve lived here for four years and I’ve lived here for four years off my vegetables. There’s an awful lot of luck involved, and there is a failure factor too, but it’s unpredictable. It’s good to make a lot of friends and have support. Everything I’ve learned everywhere else in life has made this happen. I’m not quite the spring chicken I once was [grins] but you know, I’m hangin in there.

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84 responses »

      • I just learned about Monsanto Foods and their evil seed empire. Growers and farmers are forbidden from using their own seeds from the previous years crops, as Monsanto claims they own even the seeds from the plants you grow;indeed, even the plants themselves are patented! They claim to own SOY. Period! Genetically modified by them. More on the initiative to force product labeling here:http://www.organicconsumers.org/monsanto/

        Great Post and interview 😀
        Spectra at:http//fenceandgarden.wordpress.com

  1. Great blog….as I read this I am in Israel and I feel the entire country…feels the as Armand about feeding themselves and sustainability…..love dad

  2. Love it too. Can this be a regular feature on your blog as you continue East? I like how it captures the voices & viewpoints of people you’re meeting along the way. You’ll definitely dig up some amazing stories!

    • My brother is working on starting an organic greenhouse in the downtown area of Indianapolis. This post is a great one for inspiration for him (and all of us who love to grwo!) I LOVE that Armand likens farming to art…it is like that, and really our entire lives are built the same way, just as he indicates.
      We think of something we want to happen or would like to become, etc. then out thoughts become the mold around which opur reality takes shape. This is a re-blog for me for sure right now!!! Thanks you so much and Yes Moe interviews please! AmberLena

  3. I see what he means about growing
    vegitables and creating art. You really
    captured his passion. I had a habit of
    tossing expired plant-based foods under
    the bushes in my back yard. On day mom
    bought some beautiful tomatos. We forgot
    about them and they mouldered, sadly I
    tossed them under the bushes – and
    they grew. I had never grown anything
    in my life, and was eating the best
    tasting tomato’s ever for weeks. All
    the old food I left under those bushes
    was still there, it only needed to be
    awakened, mass produced fare just
    doesen’t have the flavor – it comes
    from molucules that have ridden the
    life cycle. Plants do not think, plants
    do not feel, plants do. We can learn
    a lot from them. 🙂

  4. “That should stay there and feed all of their people, and we’ll be here feeding all of our people. This way we’re not moving food around, wasting energy and time.”

    I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. Not only do we (gardeners) save the money that is spent on commercially grown produce, we (a community) could also save oil (by cutting out massive transportation) and enjoy a longer shelf-life on our food since it wouldn’t waste time in a truck. If everyone thought this way, we could see some real changes.

  5. When I seen this “Freshly Pressed” article I quickly printed it. As we are quickly approaching the 70 mark for the both of us with future retirement also in the future, one of my wife’s dreams has been an Organic Farm. I think her dream is a great one. My fear is my 70 year old bad back and her two fights with previous breast cancer. It is my hope in our future that we will find a compromise for her dream to come to fruitation.

  6. Armand seems like a really passionate, cool guy. I love organic foods and it’s interesting to hear how a person falls into the farming lifestyle.

  7. Saiia is a man who faces incredible adversity, but from his smile you can tell his joy just overruns everything he touches. Thank you to Saiia and people like him who are bringing the heart back to our food and earth.

  8. as a “wanna be” gardener myself, who has also read lots and lots of stuff/ I especially appreciated this : “Do you have any advice for aspiring organic farmers?

    Be patient. You can do it, you just need to learn as much as you can, and then forget it all and just do it. And then, the experience is going to teach you. But you need to be in a situation where you can be patient enough to let it happen”

    Congrats on making freshly pressed

  9. Thank you all so so much for the kind words of encouragement. If you’re serious about getting in touch or working for Armand (which I definitely think you should!) you should join wwoof.org or contact him directly at Infinity Farm in Ribera, NM. He always welcomes hardworking hands, no matter age or experience. I promise you’ll have a blast!

    As for me, I’ll be on the road doing all sorts of things for another 3 months. Another farm stop in North Carolina is on the horizon for March, so check back then for more on the sustainable lifestyle of organic farming. Thanks for reading!

  10. Great to read a post about someone from NYC involved in organic farming. If there is one thing that is lacking in the city, it is the lack of green space to do this type of thing for any individual that would like too.

    Desert Grows sounds like a really great organization as well, and like it really makes a difference in the community. It is nice to see that they are getting people interested in local foods again, and it sounds like they have some great plans at Infinity Farms. Thanks so much for sharing this. I really enjoyed it.

  11. This man’s souls is a real shine! His face’s glowing by his true heart. I love the way he live his passions and fight over the pebbles and challenges! Infinity farms is a great idea.. he makes me think and ask myself ‘how about my life? how am I doing with living my passions for life?’..

    Very positive posting and interview! Pls keep up the journalism soul of yours.. i like this style of blogging.. 🙂

  12. What an incredible perspective. It makes you wonder how much we can do if we tried something like this. Or, at the very least, paid more attention to the importance of our food sources.

  13. Lovely interview with a lovely person…I love the way he talks about planting and farming as “earthwork”…the beauty of nature supersedes the beauty in creating of an art form. 🙂
    Thank You!

  14. WOW! We need to share this article as much as possible. We need to inspire those (like myself) who believe organic farming is part of their future, those who are close to being ready but not quite sure if to go ahead, if to take the risk, and most of all, we need to inspire the up-and-coming generation.

    AND YES! We need to get everyone reading Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey M. Smith as a matter of urgency.

    Is this a campaign issue in the US for 2012? It certainly should be, if only to raise awareness against Monsanto.

    Of course the politicians can say anything in their campaign and then do nothing in office.
    The real work is on the ground, with the consumers, with what people know and believe and how much they believe that everyone can make a difference.

    As someone living outside the US (not American), consider that I seek out NEW ZEALAND dairy and lamb because I don’t trust US sources due to bGH (a GM hormone). Consider that I may stop buying beets if I ever confirm that they are really coming from the US and at risk for being GM foods.

    We don’t label foods here GM or not so that adds to the cluelessness of our population. So whether or not the beets are really GM I won’t know.

    What I’m saying is that GM foods are bad for the export economy of the United States.

    Well, unless Monsanto has convinced Congress that it’s bamboozling all the other governments of the world with its dishonest campaign to take over the global food industry.

    The hope is with the people on the ground. How we buy, how we farm, what we believe, what we preach and teach.

    With India, China and Africa also on board with growing GM, we’re all very late in the game. But it’s not too late. Not yet.

  15. EL CULTIVO DE LA TIERRA ESTA EN EL MISMO LENGUAJE DEL CIELO,
    EL INVERNADERO ES EL HOGAR DE LOS VEGETALES
    EL DIALOGO CON EL SILENCIO ES LA ESCUCHA CON LA NATURALEZA VIDA
    QUE BELLEZA ESTAR EN COMUNICACIÓN CON TODO EN UNIDAD
    VIVIR ES-TAN SENCILLO QUE LAS MAQUINAS SE PIERDEN DE SENTIR LA VIDA
    LAS MONTAÑAS HACEN LAS TIERRAS EN LOS VALLES
    LO BIOLÓGICO ES LA ECOLOGÍA DE REGRESAR A LA TIERRA LAS HOJAS DE LOS ARBOLES, ESE CICLO DE RECIBIR Y DAR ES COMPARTIR EL AMOR EN EL PLANETA LIBRE
    ORGÁNICO ES ORGANISMO QUE SE RECICLA POR SU MISMIDAD DE VIDA…
    UN HOLA, DE AMISTAD SERENA-MENTE
    VIO, VIDA….

  16. Hi you know what you can do … paint the vegetables you grow too and sell the paintings. Maybe they’ll bring in the money you need . You know what I am a total foodie and I understood immediately what you were trying to convey through your words that food is what makes us.. it is a very sacred relationship for where would we be without food. I love watching things grow and I am blessed with a bit of ground on which to grow things. Buy my book … it will help solve your problems.

  17. Having made (and stuck to) a couple of green practices on a daily basis for a few years now, your post sowed the seed of inspiration for the green-er wannabe in me. Definitely food for thought now … and action when I grow up. 🙂

    >Why not put my journalism degree to some use?
    – You just walked the talk, Liza! What a fantastic topic, too!

    Congratulations on being FPed!

    Kate

  18. Your post is inspirational. I envision this type of world too, with the people growing food on small plots, even urban plots and empowering themselves in the process. We so desperately need to get back to the earth because this would heal us and the earth.

  19. Pingback: Organic Farm/Garden/Foodbank Tips! | …………….THE LIBERTARIAN – El Libertario – Le Libertaire……. Ongoing SMILE News & Tools

  20. Armand…We are 2 of the same souls! I organic garden, not at your level, and paint! People have tagged me “the organic artist, but what I am most proud of is my garden. I can go outside and see what’s for dinner, it is a great feeling of accomplishment! My only problem here in Malibu is gophers! Any hints???? Luv you and your work! Deb

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  23. I love your post! Organic, local farming should be the norm everywhere across the world. I remember that when I was a child, living in my country of Bulgaria, my grandparents used to grow pretty much everything we ate in our backyard. I miss that so much today. It is hard for me to find any of the good quality home-grown, home-made food that my body responds so lovingly to.
    I think we have reached a point in time, however, where reconnecting with the body, going back to basics, and living more sustainably is becoming more and more popular. Thank you for sharing Armand’s story with us 🙂

  24. I love it! Great food, great cultural ascetics, and it makes me want to go HOME! Escape from the egalitarianism in the US …. to the common sense of the Commies!

    Thanks

    Wayne

  25. “Learn as much as you can, and then forget it all and just do it.” <— I absolutely love that! I'm an over-planner, generally, so this is advice that I can truly adopt into my life. In fact, this just may be the perfect little saying for me to paint on my garden's watering can. 🙂 Very inspirational!

  26. What i would like to know is there are millions of farmers who produce organic everything here in Africa, what makes your organic farmer unique? his passion for farming or his professional transformation? it’s an honest question please respond to that.
    Emnet

    • Emnet-

      Thank you for your question. For me, it was the combination of Armand’s passion for local sustainability and his unfailing, dogged spirit in facing such a remarkable lifestyle change- from the New York City art world to a rural New Mexican farming community. I know there are millions of others out there doing what he’s doing, especially in developing nations. I never said Armand is a game-changer or a leader in the field, I just had the opportunity to get to know him and wanted others to have the same chance. This is just a personal blog!

      Thanks for reading,
      Liza

  27. Pingback: Lovely blog post on organic farming… « Haubies

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