The Nicest Place in New Mexico: Bueno Para Todos Farm in Villanueva

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"Life on Pause on the Farm"

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When COVID-19 stranded foreign students in America, a local farm made sure they felt like they were home.

If you think you had it hard dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, trying to find toilet paper and getting your family ready for time spent together in the house, imagine what it was like for people trapped in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home.

That was the predicament facing Omobolanle Kafidipe,18, of Nigeria. She was one of 230 students from 99 countries studying at United World College (UWC) in Montezuma, New Mexico, when the pandemic hit. “When that happened, we realized it wasn’t possible for us to get home,” she told Reader’s Digest.

Forty minutes down the road, in a remote town of just 300 people called Villanueva, Kafidipe and others found a fascinating place with a helping spirit, Buena Para Todos (Good for All) Farm. It’s a farm run by women where the students found a multicultural haven. “Locals here trace their roots back to multiple cultures—Indigenous, Spanish, and Anglo—and the intermingling has produced a resilient population,” says Jeanette Iskat, one of the farmers. “The local Catholic church in Villanueva features an heirloom colcha tapestry hundreds of feet long that shows our history stitch by stitch.”

Iskat, a “newcomer” by local standards, came to live here nine years ago after visiting from Los Angeles and falling in love with the place. Nestled in the Pecos River Valley, or El Valle De Los Palos Amarilos (The Valley of the Yellow Trees) in Spanish, the ten-acre farm has a mission that goes beyond making food.

For the past five years, the farm has welcomed students from UWC to learn about using indigenous practices to grow non-GMO organic fruits and vegetables. The students are taught symbiotic crop-planting, planting corn, beans and squash together to enhance soil nutrients while keeping insects away. This year, that history paid off for everyone.

the farmCourtesy Jeanette Iskat
The farm, managed by Executive Director Yvonne Sandoval (left) became a home-away-from-home for many.

“Many of us had been host families for the students already when we were asked by UWC if we would consider taking in kids we didn’t know. Some stayed on the farm, some with me in my home, and some stayed with my farming partner. We made sure the students were comfortable,” says Iskat.

For five of the stranded students, Buena Para Todos has been a godsend.

“We had been coming to the farm to help about once a month prior to the pandemic,” says Kafidipe. “I’ll probably be here until Christmastime.” The four other students at the farm are from Egypt, Jordan, Grand Cayman, and Niger. Their presence has been anything but a burden. They spend time working on their coursework and helping weed and water on the farm.

“We may be teaching them, but we are learning so much in return,” says Iskat. “They have really ambitious dreams—they reframe our experiences. These students know themselves a bit better and a bit earlier than we did. They see the world more clearly, and they will call it out.”

The Nomination

I am part of a small women led farm in very rural Northern New Mexico. The farm sits on 10 acres at the end of the Pecos River Valley; in Spanish it is El Valle De Los Palos Amarilos (aka The Valley of the Yellow Trees). Locals here trace their roots back to multiple cultures (Indigenous, Spanish and Anglo) and the intermingling has produced a resilient and insular population that often introduces itself by asking who you are related to. The local Catholic church in Villanueva features a heirloom colcha tapestry hundred of feet long that shows the history stitch by stitch. The town I live in is tiny, about 300 people on a good day and it is the biggest one in the Valley.

I’m writing this as a relative newcomer to the community. I moved here 10 years ago after visiting from Los Angeles. 7 years ago, I became part of a women’s group, the El Valle Women’s Collaborative, dedicated to social justice and building rural economies through healthy farm and growing practices. 5 years ago we began to farm with a small group of people learning to grow organic, non GMO fruits and vegetables. Over the past 7 years, we have worked with a number of like minded groups and individuals building networks and inviting people in to learn from us and teach us. We have worked with The Pollination Project, Alas de Agua Art Collective and Alas de Agua Art Collective Norte, New Mexico Women, the Center for South West Culture, the New Mexico Acequia Association, the New Mexico Division of Fish and Wildlife, students from Querencia and numerous other agencies.

For the last three years, students from all over the world who are studying at United World College have been an integral part of our work, teaching us about their cultures and helping us with everything from planting to covering a massive hoop house. We have had over 70 students in that time, sometimes coming once a month and sometimes visiting for over a week at a time. We often maintain friendships with these youth after they go home to their countries. We had a planned weekend of major work with a water irrigation system installation planned under the supervision of engineers when everything changed. When COVID hit, the school had to act quickly and move students about but many students could not go home. Their countries were on lock down and they could not get flights home. Over the last 2.5 months, 5 students from Egypt, Jordan, Grand Cayman, Niger and Nigeria have stayed with us at the farm and another property, living with us and helping us as their still heavy caseloads allowed. They did their homework sometimes in the side room of the Villanueva General Store with the permission of the Torres family who have been running the store for 5 generations.

The BPT grant funding we had been saving for future projects was spent to create a space that will one day hold woofers, who are traveling farm workers. We hired local men who had been unemployed in the construction business to finish off a clean and light filled space where our last student is safely staying.

Right now, we are mindful of safety protocols. We are still working (one member is a therapist doing telemedicine, another provides client services for home bound people) and must maintain safe distances and proper health protocols to protect ourselves as workers and our families, friends and clients. We have not been able to accept many offers of health because we are mindful of quarantine protocols for people coming in.

We are glad that we could open our doors and land to beautiful youth. We look forward to when we will REALLY be able to open the land to everyone. In the mean time, we use our nights and weekends to dig and plant and grow.

Several of the students have gone to other spaces to be closer to class mates and several have gone home. We remain in contact with them and they will always be welcome to return.

Bueno Para Todos Farm sits on land originally farmed by the pueblo people of the area and later as part of the Spanish land grants. Much of the local land is still owned and farmed by generational owners.

Our community is struggling. Average median income before the virus was less than 19K for a family of four and there is little local revenue generating business. People do farm but it was dying off before the virus. We are seeing so much more farming happening and are supporting our neighbors where we safely can, by loaning out some equipment, hiring the unemployed and bringing in food from food pantries for local distribution in a knock and drop way.

Our communities can be very kind but are often isolated. There are 18 tiny pueblos in our valley and they are very self reliant, often with very little resources to draw on. People have learned to be wary of outsiders making promises that are not kept. The pandemic has created new senses of community with a small group of locals checking in on neighbors, delivering groceries and prescriptions, making sure elders are safe. We see school buses drive by and drop off sack lunches for kids. We see banners on the roads wishing a happy graduation to the child who can’t walk across a stage right now. There are small kindnesses all the time.

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