It’s been a labor of love for Amelia Vogel and Jason Schilberg, and their hard work, belief in what they do and collaboration with the community has paid off.
Rocket Punch Farm in Belen specializes in seasonal vegetables, herbs and berries. The couple follows soil health principles and ecological practices to grow food without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
Vogel and Schilberg aren’t your typical farmers. They’re transplants from Washington, D.C., relocating to Valencia County for its charm, clean air and rural atmosphere. The couple moved to Belen in November 2019 to be closer to family, who live in Albuquerque.
“It was time for that kind of life change for us,” Vogel said. “I was a former federal employee and Jason worked for a nonprofit. We were ready to move on to a different environment.”
When Vogel and Schilberg decided to start a farm, it was his love of 1970s Japanese robot cartoons that would have a special move and yell, “rocket punch.”
“I grew up watching those old cartoons, and still love the Japanese culture, so we just rolled it under this,” Schilberg said.
Vogel , who has more gardening experience than her husband, says he has learned a lot in the past year and a half and Rocket Punch Farm has proven to be a real partnership.
Even before moving to Valencia County, the couple reached out to Lindsey Diaz, with the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District, asking what they should expect from the area and what resources were available to them. They wanted a little heads up before making the transition.
“A lot of what I learned came from volunteering in community gardens, urban farms and school gardens in Washington, D.C.,” Vogel said. “I wanted to find where those same resources were here in Valencia County.”
In her research, she found the East Valencia Urban Gardens program and the Valencia Community Gardens. She contacted both groups, and began learning a lot about gardening in the area.
“I very much envisioned this to be a community space and an educational space,” she said.
Nearly immediately after moving to Belen, the couple began to cultivate their land, beginning the process of sheet mulching, which is putting down cardboard on the bottom to block out the sunlight and smother the weeds, and then layering the mulch on top.
“This is all breaking down and enriching the soil,” she said. “When we were planting in the spring, we found worm casting — earth worms — lots of positive things that were enriching the ground.”
While Vogel was confident it would work, Schilberg admitted he was surprised.
“I didn’t expect it to work so fast. We immediately started planting and it was already damp,” Schilberg said. “It’s working.”
In spring of 2020, they started planting one side, and then the pandemic hit, which limited them in what they could do but also gave them the time to do what they needed to do.
“We’ve almost got everything planted now,” Vogel said. “We plant in response to the season and what will grow. We have a couple of hoop houses, which are not high tech by any stretch of the imagination. There’s no electricity out there, no heat sources.”
Vogel said they are trying to be very low tech, very low resource about their farm operation.
“We’re not building big, electrified greenhouses,” she explained. “We’re also not spraying any pesticides of any kind, so no insecticides, no herbicides, no fungicides and no synthetic fertilizers.”
Because the farm isn’t USDA certified, Vogel and Schilberg aren’t allowed to refer to Rocket Punch Farm as “organic,” and prefer to say they are practicing regenerative and ecological-based agriculture.
The center section of Rocket Punch Farm is all native plants for pollinators and other beneficial insects. They also planted a periphery of native shrubs that produce berries to feed birds so they won’t pick at the tomatoes.
“We’re trying to do a lot of science-based, ecological practices,” Vogel said.
With the recent high temperatures Valencia County was experiencing, it’s only natural that some vegetables wouldn’t make it, such as their lettuce, Vogel explained.
“When lettuce grows tall and starts to flower, that’s when the leaves start to turn bitter because the chemistry of the plant changes,” she said. “There may have been things that may have prolonged the season, such as a shade structure, but it shouldn’t have been 100 degrees these past few weeks.
“As our farming mentor says, ‘Mother Nature has the final say,’” Vogel said.
While Mother Nature determined lettuce season was done, Rocket Punch Farm has a lot of other vegetables, such as Swiss chard, collard greens, kale, arugula, snow peas and green onions.
“Just because the lettuce is on its way out, we don’t plan to leave those beds empty,” she said. “We’ll put something else in — beans.”
The two hoop houses, which were recently built, are helping to grow summer crops. One is a net house, covered in 40 percent knitted shade cloth.
“What that hole size does is prevents the cabbage white butterflies that lay eggs on a lot of greens,” Vogel said. “It prevents them from getting in and so caterpillars don’t chew up our greens. At the same time, the hole size permits lady bugs in, which is a natural pest control for aphids.”
The second hoop house is a more traditional greenhouse, wrapped in woven plastic, which is supposed to be hail resistant. It’s ventilated, which Vogel and Schilberg plan to continue to use in the winter.
“Even though it’s hot in the middle of the day, it gets much colder at night and, because of that, our chiles and ocra don’t do very well,” she said. “If it’s too cold, the photosynthesis process doesn’t go very quickly and the plants don’t grow very much.”
Vogel and Schilberg has the hoop house open during the day for ventilation, and closes it around sunset to trap the warmer air.
While Rocket Punch Farm participated a couple of times in the Belen Farmers Market last year, they decided to open their farm and selling direct to the public this spring.
“We like having people come over to see — seeing is believing — and have the opportunity to talk to them about ecology and how to grow vegetables without having to use dangerous chemicals,” Vogel said. “We hope to have this as more of a community space. In time, we’ll have some picnic tables, we’ll have some trees for shade.
“What you see now is a work in progress, and there’s more to come.”
Rocket Punch Farm is located at 14 Gonzales Road, and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., every Thursday and Friday, and from 1-5 p.m. on Saturdays. For more information, visit their Facebook page, website at rocketpunchfarm.com, or call 505-302-5657.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.