Latest Grow Food News
Oct 27, 2021
For the past 64 years, Jim Enote has been growing waffle gardens, sunken garden beds surrounded by clay walls that he learned from his grandmother. This year, he planted onions and chilies, which he watered from a nearby river. It is an Indigenous farming tradition suited to the semi-arid desert, Zuni Pueblo highlands of New Mexico, where waffle gardens have long flourished and Enote has been farming since childhood. “They are the opposite of raised beds, and for drier areas, they are actually very efficient at conserving water,” said Enote, who led the study. Colorado Highlands Foundation to protect customary lands, traditions, and water. Each waffle interior cell covers about a square foot of soil, just below the soil surface, and the raised, denuded earth walls are designed to help keep moisture in the soil. Similar sunken beds for growing food with little water have been used globally in arid regions, which emerged independently by Indigenous farmers, including across the different Pueblo tribes of the Southwest. “When you have an ecological equivalent, you often have a cultural counterpart,” says Enote. As climate change deepens, he sees this tradition as one of many ways to adapt and build food security and sovereignty. Historic Zuni waffle garden, circa 1919. (Photo courtesy of Kirk Bemis) The Zuni Pueblo region is projected to experience more intense droughts and storms in the coming years, intensifying natural weather patterns. “Climate change is basically only going to make our extremes more extreme,” said Kirk Bemis, a hydrologist with the Zuni Tribe Conservation Program. “Most of the channels and rivers around here are transient, or simply variable, and are highly dependent on storm events.” Zuni agriculture evolved in response to these extremes, which makes it very effective in adapting to the future of the region. “This is going to be difficult,” said Enote. “But in the meantime, we still have to do what we can to find a way to adapt and live with it. And I think the waffle garden is one of the tools for us to get through that.” Backyard Waffle Garden Revival For a long time, Enote was one of the few people to maintain a waffle garden at Zuni Pueblo. “In the ’70s, it reached a point where there were almost no waffle gardens around,” he said. Enote attributed this largely to the shift of tribes to a cash-work economy, in the mid-20th century, but this began to shift in the late 80s and 90s with the revival of agricultural traditions. Curtis How’s waffle garden. (Photo courtesy of Curtis How) In recent years, he has observed a growing interest in waffle gardens, among other Zuni farming traditions, fueled primarily by the economic and social unrest during the pandemic. “There really was a revival,” said Enote. “People have had time to count and search for souls, and think more deeply about our origins, our identity, and that, in fact, we are farmers.” While many of the larger areas of the Zuni pueblo that were once farms are no longer in use, backyard gardens are becoming more common—and increasingly waffle gardens. In addition to engaging in the Zuni tradition, Enote says growing food this way “contributes”[s] household budget,” by supporting food and economic security at the family level. “I think the future for [the pueblo] and the farm is in our backyard garden,” said Daniel Bowannie, environmental engineer who runs the Zuni Sustainable Agriculture Program, which installed the garden and offered technical assistance. The program has installed about 100 modified waffle gardens, using wooden planks instead of clay walls, throughout the village, including in hospitals and nursing homes. Bowannie also guides people through the process of building their own gardens. Not long after the pandemic hit, Bowannie’s phone started ringing. “I started receiving calls on my private phone and people calling other family members or friends with questions. They sent me pictures and asked me questions, like: ‘Where did you get the land from?’” Bowannie’s hope is that every household in Zuni village has a garden in their backyard, and he believes such a change could cut the family’s need for grocery shopping in half. “A small, 4-by-8 [foot] the garden will give you four to five buckets full of corn, which is not enough to live fully, but enough to feed our family, survive, and carry on our traditions.” He also considers it important for Zuni people to reduce their dependence on grocery stores, which are vulnerable to the pandemic supply chain disruption . “If we lose the grocery store tomorrow, what are we going to do?” Bowan said. He sees backyard gardens as an important part of the answer to this question.