Leaving the city may have been one of the best things mental health counselor Brian Salazar ever did. He left Denver and its hustle and bustle to return to his ancestral roots in northern New Mexico. Today he works with young people in a program he calls ‘eco-farming.’ It’s an approach that is a combination of horticulture, agriculture and addressing basic mental health needs.
The eco-farm has helped in his work with young people who, for a number of reasons, have fallen through societal cracks that often exist in smaller, rural communities. Not everyone, said Salazar, is going to benefit from traditional therapies,” he said, fully convicted that in the belief that a one-size-fits-all works for everyone. “It’s also really helped me to understand how to care of myself,” he said.
Some of the young people who’ve found the eco-farm a beneficial experience have become entangled in the juvenile justice system or gangs, have home life issues where parents may have drug or alcohol issues or simply lack good parenting skills. At the eco-ranch young people can learn to deal with their own mental health problems.
The young people Salazar works with range in age five to 21 years. “Eighty percent are Chicano,” he said, of his Costilla, New Mexico, program. The rest are a blend of Native American and White, both young girls and boys. He said the eco-farm option has been successful in “eight out of ten within our small community.”
The concept of the eco-farm came to Salazar, who is a licensed mental health counselor, after COVID landed on the country. “I was challenged on how to entertain thirty kids with behavioral needs…farming is one of the best ways to control risk,” he said. “The idea popped into my head, and it’s taken off over the summer.” He hopes to add an adult component sometime soon. That part remains open ended.
Salazar’s young charges visit his family D-R-3 ranch, so called for a grandfather, Daniel Rivera. It’s a property that sits at more than 7,000 feet above sea level and is situated next to the Colorado-New Mexico border. The ranch goes back to the earliest days of New Mexico and, he said, was a land grant parcel from then New Spain. It is, said Salazar, perhaps unconventional but “being in the mountains and seeing where these plants live, understanding the environment,” is like being in an outdoor hospital. He calls it ‘psychoeducation.’
But instead of a young person leaving with a prescription, something that may only prolong the need for therapy, he said, they leave with an understanding of what might help them address or even solve some of the issues they initially brought to the ranch. “They leave learning to believe in themselves…understanding and controlling their impulses and emotions.”
Learning the botany of northern New Mexico, including aromatherapy, is only part---but an important part---of the experience. But another experience a young person may have, on any given day, is coming eye-to-eye with any one of the thousand pound cattle or horses that are part of this working ranch.
One success story Salazar is proud to talk about involves a hyperactive young person who was scared of big animals. “We introduced them to equine therapy…and he gained the courage not only to overcome his fear but to ride (the animal).” Exposure to large animals “teaches them to be calm and gentle.”
Another element of the experience is learning the cultural history of the land “in order to understand where we come from in order to learn where we have to go.”For some, it’s the first time they’ve heard not just the ranch’s history but New Mexico’s long and sometimes tortured history with the first Spanish settlers.
The eco-farm, he knows, won’t solve the problems of every young person who spends time there. “Some of their mental health issues will never go away,” he acknowledges. Still, he remains confident that time at the eco-ranch will give them the confidence that the reasons that brought them here in the first place won’t “define who they are and where they can go.”