green from the ground up

Traditional farming meets 21st-century sensibilities at an off-the-grid greenstead where an inventive family is sowing the seeds of a sustainable future.

This article first appeared in Winter 09 Su Casa

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When the big jets bound for Albuquerque International Sunport fly over the Rio Grande on a flight path that occasionally dips over Ironwood Farm, they trigger a bit of wonderment as those on the ground look skyward. Aircraft somehow seem out of place here, although this peaceful 10-acre farm is a scant 15 minutes south of downtown Albuquerque.

Ironwood Farm, with its assortment of children and sheep, pigs and cows, turkeys and geese, seems of another time and place, one in which jets couldn’t possibly crisscross the heavens. The power lines a quarter-mile away seem equally incongruous. At Ironwood Farm, electricity is harvested from the sun, vegetables harvested from the garden, and water drawn from a well. Even a road sign along the bumpy public route leading to the farm gives an illustrated caution to watch for a farmer astride his tractor.

Despite its bucolic setting under the cottonwoods that mark the river’s meandering route, Ironwood is an urban farm firmly rooted in the 21st century. It’s one family’s way of trying to leave a gentle footprint on their planet.

Meet Chris and Jenny Altenbach, parents to Scott and Eliza. Both biologists, Chris works at the Albuquerque Biological Park saving endangered fishes, while Jenny stays home tending to homeschooling and never-ending farm tasks. There’s honey to harvest, tomatoes to can, irrigation gates to open, and pigs to feed. And farm chores aside, there’s the owner-built strawbale house that still wants a few finishing touches.

So why do these two busy urban farmers look so content? They’re living their dream, life on their own terms—at least as much as one might expect in modern-day America. Yet even so, they see looming challenges and goals ahead.

Although she can’t take credit for coining the word, Jenny, 39, who grew up in suburban middle-class Chicago, considers theirs a life of “greensteading.”

“Building our own home and working the land in an environmentally responsible way as possible” is her succinct definition, but, of course, volumes and volumes could be written about either topic.

“It’s pioneering without moving,” adds Chris, 38. “Not so much cutting edge as bleeding edge.”

The lines are blurred between environmental activism, a commitment to sustainability, and a fierce desire to become as independent as possible in terms of growing their own food, living off the utility grid, and educating their own children. If the world crashes, the Altenbachs might prove a bit hardier and more self-sufficient than most.

Dreams of sustainability and energy efficiency were hatched in the aftermath of 9/11, as that catastrophic event challenged the couple to examine their lifestyle goals. The current economic crisis has spurred them to revisit those goals.

“Armchair activism is not what we wanted,” Jenny says. Instead, priorities such as green living, family/community, and self-sufficiency rose to the top of their common list. During this time of soul-searching, they decided to move onto the 10-acre Ironwood Farm, a property where Chris’ father, Scott Altenbach, still lives in the original home about 250 yards away from the younger couple. Chris spent his childhood both here and at the small South Valley farm owned by his mother, Marilyn Altenbach. As a child he was actively involved in 4-H gardening and poultry projects and learned to drive a tractor long before he learned to drive a car.

Today, Chris credits his parents and stepparents for instilling the values of environmental stewardship that he hopes to pass along to his own children.

Jenny, the city girl who came to New Mexico to study biology at the University of New Mexico, took to country life like a duck to water. In one of those strange twists of fate, she had already admired Ironwood Farm from bike rides along the river before ever meeting Chris.

“I had no idea I would someday live here,” she says.

The pair spent three years building a classic 1,500-square-foot passive solar home of straw bales, not an uncommon alternative building material in arid New Mexico. Stacked inside a post-and-beam framework, the bales are reinforced with rebar and plastered to form thick and sculpted walls much like adobe. With no mechanical heating or cooling systems, the home relies heavily on passive solar heating and passive cooling. South-facing windows let in the winter sun, and the heat is absorbed in an interior adobe thermal mass wall that allows it to dissipate when the house cools down at night. A woodstove supplements the passive solar design, although the family lit its first fire of winter 2007 on Christmas Day, as much for holiday ambience as warmth. Deep outdoor eaves keep the high summer sun from overheating the house.

A 930-watt photovoltaic system brings electricity to the home. Mounted on the metal shed-style roof, the solar panels harness the sun’s energy, which is stored in battery cells and converted from direct current to alternating current to power household appliances ranging from a computer to a small refrigerator. Most of the appliances are designed to run far more efficiently than those found in conventional homes, but there’s power enough to run a table saw and other tools.

The off-grid home draws its water from a well, its pump powered by the sun. There is a septic system, as well as a composting toilet. Propane powers the kitchen stove. Still, “sustainability” has a difficult definition. The number one goal is simple survival, they say.

“In terms of a sustainable system, that depends on what standard of living we are trying to achieve,” Jenny says. “Right now we have most of the comforts of a modern middle-class home minus a few things like a clothes dryer and such. And of course our energy use is carefully thought out compared to people who just leave lights on all the time and run their AC. But I guess a baseline definition of sustainability would be that no external input of energy is required, and we are far from that. We still buy gas and propane, some food at the grocery store, and feed for livestock.”

Officially, the home is owner-built. In reality, it’s taken a community of family, friends, and neighbors. A framed photograph of 50 folks, ranging from tots to grandparents, is propped on the piano as a testament to the work day when the strawbale walls were raised.

“It’s not possible for two people to do this alone,” says Jenny, and she’s not talking only about house construction. “You can’t do this in a vacuum.”

Neighbors are an important part of the mix. From nearby acreage comes hay, fertilizing manure, and pasture access for livestock. From Chris’ father comes access to a “boneyard” of accumulated spare parts and use of his wood-fueled steam engines to chip straw for the home’s plaster coat or run a buzz saw to cut firewood.

In the Altenbachs’ sustainable world, bartering and using salvaged material has become a lifestyle. Aside from the post-and-beam structure, nearly every piece of wood used in the home was discarded by someone else. The herringbone pattern in the ceilings is formed from the boards of broken-up pallets. The tile mosaics in the windowsills are from broken, thrown-away tiles. Even the dirt used in the mud-plastered walls and hardened mud floor came from Ironwood Farm property.

If there’s one piece of advice proffered by the Altenbachs, it’s that experimentation in this lifestyle choice is OK. Heck, it’s desirable.

“You can read forever, but some lessons you have to learn on your own,” Jenny says. “You can’t always learn from others’ mistakes. You’ve got to be willing to make your own, and we’ve made plenty.”

From the family’s big table positioned between kitchen and den, the picture window opens to the 10 acres of fields sectioned lengthwise into paddocks. Jersey cows, with the promise of milk production to come, graze on one field; an assortment of poultry—turkeys, egg layers and meat chickens, and geese—fan out from their portable houses on another paddock. It’s a pastoral setting, particularly appealing if one’s idea of farming isn’t necessarily constrained by visions of tidy boundaries and weed-free gardens. Here, sunflowers reach skyward in late summer and a pumpkin patch awaits Halloween. Drip irrigated tomato plants produce a bountiful harvest to be put up for winter, and a couple of beehives are positioned under the shade canopy of a huge cottonwood.

The pastures are irrigated through a flood irrigation system fed from acequias, or ditches, from the nearby Rio Grande, a perk of location, much as the sun’s abundant presence is a perk of living in New Mexico.

The couple estimates that they were able to grow about 80 percent of their own food last year, bypassing the store completely for meat, eggs, milk, and most fruits and vegetables.

“At the grocery store I do buy cereal, flour, sugar, oils, some spices and other baking needs, coffee, tropical fruits, chocolate, and, of course, stuff for the kids,” Jenny says. “But if we had no access to the grocery store we could at this point grow enough to feed our family as long as we can still import nitrogen in the form of manure, hay, or feed. And, of course, we would still need to get water for irrigation. Our goal is to grow as much of our own food as possible.”

As biologists, Chris and Jenny live by the scientist’s call for biodiversity. When possible and practical, they experiment with heritage and heirloom livestock, poultry, and seeds. At Ironwood Farm, visitors will find Churro sheep, a Navajo breed prized for its wool. Jersey and Hereford cattle graze on the pasture. The couple owns two of the handful of rare American Guinea Hogs in New Mexico, mild-tempered creatures that can be pastured. At Ironwood, there are fruit trees and vegetable gardens, grain crops and root crops. There are worm composting bins and beehives. Animals and crops are rotated throughout the farmland each season.

This polyculture of plants and animals increases the farm’s productivity without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Here, nature is the ultimate recycler as manure and plant material are composted to create fertilizer for gardens and crops. The small farm has attracted the attention of extension service agricultural trainees from across the country. A group made a stop in the fall to tour the farm to both learn and offer suggestions.

“Biodiversity is a big part of the farm ecosystem,” Chris says. “Harnessing all of the possible productivity out of the land and providing habitat for wild animals makes us feel like we are getting all we can from the water we use.”

By biodiversity, Chris refers not only to livestock and crops, but also bugs, worms, toads, roadrunners, grasshoppers, spiders, weeds, and even the nesting hawks, snakes, and migratory birds that find refuge on a farm that has moved away from the heavy-handed use of farm machinery powered by fossil fuel.

At Ironwood Farm, there is careful reasoning behind even the varieties of poultry. The chickens scratch and forage afar. The turkeys eat grasshoppers and other bugs. The vegetarian geese are grazers.

The connectedness and portability of various systems has become a hallmark of this family operation. Chris has built several prototypes of moveable chicken coops that can be picked up and rotated through the fields, ensuring fresh bugs and grass for the poultry and a minimum of cleaning responsibilities for the humans, not to mention natural fertilization for the land. Hay is stacked under portable metal car sheds so the bottom decomposed layers eventually can be tilled into the ground after moving the shed to a new location. The pigs are wintered on next summer’s garden plot to break up the compost and help dig the garden before planting time approaches. The gardens are close to the house for convenient harvest and food processing.

“The animals are a vital part of this,” Jenny says, “whether a ‘greensteader’ is vegetarian or not. If you’re not going to use the animals for food, at least get them working for you.”

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