It’s the beginning of February – by most measures, the heart of winter – and Steve Martin is wearing shorts. Partially perhaps because we’re enjoying some marvelously warm midwinter weather, but specifically because the weather in the carefully climate controlled greenhouses in which Steve farms hovers around a warm and lightly humid low seventies.
Farming has been a constant in his life, and in fact the lives of his predecessors, too. Steve was raised a 4th generation dairy farmer in Syracuse, New York. After coming to the conclusion he would be happy if he could truthfully say that he had milked his last cow, Steve and wife Kim Martin returned to northern New Mexico, where they originally met. He went to college in Los Alamos, and on heading back west, knew where he wanted to settle in the Alcalde valley along the Rio Grande.
Back then, they were total newcomers to growing vegetables and hydroponics. Now, their produce is well known, and an especially bright source of color in the winter. “Steve and Kim are famous for their year-round supply of plump heirloom tomatoes. Speckled, striped, green, red, orange, yellow, and deep purple, these tomatoes are a favorite for Squash Blossom chefs and regular shoppers,” Nina Yozell-Epstein, founder and CEO of Squash Blossom. “There’s nothing quite like the taste of a local tomato, and to be able to access that juicy sweet tang in the middle of winter, is something only Growing Opportunities can offer us.”
It should come as no surprise that hydroponic farming is uniquely well suited to the high desert of northern New Mexico, maximizing efficiency for scarce resources and exploiting the abundance of others. In a land chronically challenged with water conservation, hydroponic farming uses 1/10 the water for 10 times the production in regards to field grown. And our seemingly endless supply of sunny days means that the Martins grow exclusively with natural light. The greenhouses are set in a north-south orientation to use all available light during the low arc of the sun in the winter months.
The hydroponic system uses a soil-less growing medium: at Growing Opportunities, the Martins use a combination of coconut coir (produced from the brown husk that surrounds the coconut shell) and perlite, which is made by heating silica (flakes of glass) until it expands – not unlike popcorn. This produces a light, porous, inert foundation to support the roots of the plants, which are then fed a nutrient solution.
Modern hydroponics represents an intriguing intersection of simple materials and precision technology. While the growing medium and nutrients are essentially basic elements, the specific recipes for each combination are computer controlled to the decimal point. Temperature and humidity are similarly precisely monitored and controlled – computer-driven doors and fans operate to maintain the perfect climate. Water is run through a paper mesh to add humidity to the environment.
Pollination is done the old fashioned way, with a twist – each greenhouse contains a number of small hives, home to a docile bee called “Bombus Impatients” bred especially for this use.
There is something a little other-worldly about walking into this environment. The sheer symmetry of the architecture, the rows, the airplane-engine sized fans is breathtaking – in the even, diffuse white light inside the greenhouse, the plants positively glow emerald. It’s a serene, quiet space – you can almost hear the plants growing. But despite how foreign that space may feel at first – at the end of the day, the yield – shiny cucumbers and vibrant colorful tomatoes – are as familiar and delicious as any you’ve ever tasted.
Squash Blossom Stories on eatsantafe.com is a collaborative project to promote growers and eaters in northern New Mexico.
Squash Blossom Local Food is a social enterprise with the mission to “provide a dependable income stream for local farmers, bring healthier food to our community, and strengthen our local economy”. They are the easiest way for Santa Fe’s top chefs to purchase bulk local farm ingredients through their stream-lined order & distribution system, so that you can eat the freshest food at your favorite local restaurants. Squash Blossom also sells directly to the public! You can order online from their selection of local farm produce, and locally made artisanal food products at: Squash Blossom Local Food.
Eatsantafe.com is thrilled to help showcase their great work and share the stories of the inspiring growers, chefs, and eaters in this special project.