“Los Poblanos is an experimental farm, and one that is an inspiration to all the farmers in this rich fertile valley which has already been farmed for 300 years…”
-Laura Gilpin, Country Life Magazine, 1932
On the north side of Albuquerque, New Mexico, close to the banks of the Rio Grande, sits Los Poblanos, a historic property with a rich history of agriculture that continues today as an organic farming operation. A highly diversified program that grows everything from lavender to roses and pumpkins to green beans, the farm itself is at the heart of a whole ecosystem of complementary businesses that constitute the place of Los Poblanos–including the inn, critically-acclaimed restaurant Campo, an architecturally-noteworthy campus that hosts weddings and special events, a spa, and a farm shop.
Everything grown on the farm finds its eventual purpose in one of these avenues. Lavender is distilled and incorporated into body lotions, candles and bath salts; herbs and vegetables are served at the restaurant; and fresh-cut flowers from the rose garden adorn the inn’s reception area. With regenerative soil-friendly practices like cover crops and low tillage, the introduction of livestock like alpacas and sheep whose manure is composted and put back into the fields, and the presence of seven beehives whose pollinating activity has led to the most productive lavender seasons ever measured, the farm team works to get as much as they can out of the property, creating a very closed-loop system of production.
Wes Brittenham, the property’s Director of Horticulture, oversees this large, diverse operation. Coming from a long family lineage of farmers, his life-long interest in plants is not surprising. From the family farm in Kansas, to his New York City mother’s beloved flowerbeds and vegetable garden, Brittenham was surrounded by horticulture from the beginning, and it has been a through-line of his life ever since. Whether collecting houseplants as a child, managing large commercial landscaping operations as an adult, or creating mixed-media painting and sculptures today, plant life is always at the center of Brittenham’s work.
Above all, Brittenham is interested in working with nature. “Most farmers and gardeners who’ve been at it for a while understand that we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature,” he says. “We’re stewards of the land, we’re not controlling it. We have to work with the seasons and balance our rhythms of care. We understand the challenges, successes, and failures, and then that flows into the products and the kitchen, depending on the productivity of the season.”
Another factor of “working with nature” is looking at climate. When the owners of Los Poblanos decided to preserve the property as a historical register site, a portion of the land was required to remain in agriculture forever. Since the desert valley climate only receives an average of 9 to 11 inches of rainfall a year, they settled on lavender as an ideal plant for cultivation. With low water use and very few pests, it’s an ideal desert plant.
Originally a Mediterranean species, the Grosso lavender variety grown at Los Poblanos is slightly too medicinal to be considered much for culinary use, but that’s what makes it perfect for their line of body products. In the wellness world, lavender is known for being calming, relaxing, and soothing for the senses. It also contains anti bacterial and anti-microbial properties, can take the sting out of insect bites, and help to soothe burns.
Since you can’t grow Grosso lavender from seed, the team at Los Poblanos does all of their own propagation. In the fall, they identify the plants they want to take cuttings from, take them into the greenhouse, and trim them down to a sprig. They then wash the sprigs in willow water (which has hormones that encourage rooting) and put them in an organic potting soil on heating mats. The plants begin rooting out in the greenhouse, from which they transition up to two inch, four inch, then one gallon pots, before eventually making it out into the fields the next spring.
Generally, lavender peaks in July. The farm team harvests all three acres of planted lavender by hand using Japanese sickles – a serrated curved blade. The lavender is harvested in the morning, when the essential oils are at their peak, in the flowers at the top of the plant. Then they measure and record the productivity of each row. The harvest is collected in buckets and transported to giant copper alembic stills. Jamie Lord, the lead distiller, takes the lavender and packs stills with 100 pounds of lavender and water from the well. Cold well water then runs through the condenser. The process of steaming pulls essential oils and moisture out of the plant and up into the swan neck, where the hydrosol is separated from essential oils, which drip into separators, glass tubes, or beakers. Each process yields approximately 32 ounces of distilled lavender, while the byproduct of the spent lavender is removed from the stills, and either spread on the bottom of the hen house or directly brought to compost piles.
Lord, whose background was in hairdressing and cosmetology prior to finding her way to Los Poblanos through a Craiglist job posting, learned the distillation process over the course of two days from the owner Armin Rembe, who planted the first lavender plant in 1999. Today, when the copper stills aren’t busy with lavender distillation all summer, she experiments with plants like roses, rosemary, pine blends, and comfrey, whose hydrosols are then used in the spa or product development. “I’m basically in love with botanicals,” says Lord. “I love having a relationship with the property, being able to identify what we’re growing, what we can use, and how we can use it.”
While lavender may be the plant upon which Los Poblanos has built much of its prominence, the other elements of the farm are just as essential to creating the blended, diversified program that accounts for the restaurant and product teams’ ability to continually innovate their offerings. In the seven years since the farm manager Maxfield Bervig began working on the farm, he’s significantly expanded the herb and flower gardens, introduced pumpkin and corn fields, and continues to build soil health in every available square inch of the property, so that the yield from each farm plot can be as productive as possible.
Bervig describes the process of steering the direction of the farm as a constantly-evolving, collaborative process between all of Los Poblano’s various departments. In the fall, he circulates a list: here’s what I’m interested in growing, what is everyone interested in using? The wholesale department might request Sicilian oregano for a new spice blend they’d like to develop, while the spa might be looking for more lemon balm. Campo’s Executive Chef Jonathan Perno (who has been nominated six times as a semi-finalist for a James Beard award) is understandably particular about his ingredients. The plan for the next growing season is then informed by these requests.
“I used to joke that I just wanted to be a gardener on an estate somewhere,” says Brittenham, and indeed, the community-oriented, self-sustaining model that Los Poblanos has developed does in many ways resemble a historic estate-like household. Now nearing the end of his decades-long career in horticulture, Brittenham has found a feeling of purposefulness through working the earth at Los Poblanos. As time elapsed, his attachment to the property has grown, as the operation itself grows and evolves. “I want to turn the farm over to my ‘kids’,” he says, referring to the younger generation of farmers working alongside him. “We’re working together to create a vision, a legacy for this property. Our ‘family farm.’”