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past and future meet in san juan pueblo solar project

san juan pueblo, n.m. - amid adobe buildings and farmlands nestled in the fertile rio grande valley, indians at this northern new mexico pueblo are using technologies advanced by sandia national laboratories to improve traditional methods of food processing and preparation.

tribal members are using solar power to dry crops quickly for processing and packaging, and a solar oven to bake large quantities of food, including traditional indian breads. sandia has loaned the pueblo both equipment and technical expertise from its advanced energy technology center.

"this is a convergence of tradition and technology," says lynnwood brown, general manager of the san juan agricultural cooperative. "the sun has always been important to the indian culture; we're just adapting new technology so we can compete in today's economy more effectively."

brown adds: "the pueblo is actually coming full circle -- we're returning to tradition to meet the challenge of the future."

san juan pueblo, located about five miles north of espanola, has been continuously inhabited since the late 1200s. early spanish explorers arrived in the late 1500s and established the settlement of san gabriel next to the pueblo. san gabriel was the first spanish-designed capital in the southwest, and the second oldest european settlement in what now is the united states. the pueblo today has about 1,600 inhabitants, and only remnants remain of san gabriel.

the cooperative is growing, drying and packaging a number of different fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, corn, chile, squash, beans and melon. the fruits and vegetables are processed and packaged separately, as well as in prepared dishes. the cooperative already has had promising preliminary sales of its packaged green chile stew.

the pueblo is using the solar oven to supplement traditional baking and cooking. bread routinely is baked in an horno, a free-standing adobe structure that is heated with wood. the bread dough is placed in the heated oven after the wood coals have been removed. the solar oven will bake about 40 one-pound loaves of bread per hour, or it can cook large quantities of stews, soups or other foods. a typical horno can bake about 30 loaves of bread at one time.

while the san juan solar agricultural project is showing early signs of success, the true measure will be whether the project makes it economically feasible to bring back into production hundred of acres of farmland that have lain fallow for decades.

the solar project is an outgrowth of the san juan agricultural cooperative, a for-profit association that formed in late 1992 as a means of bringing pueblo lands back into production. the pueblo has about 2,000 acres of farmland, but only 200 acres are currently cultivated. the cooperative's 40 members have drawn up a business plan that calls for expanding the amount of planted acreage to 500 acres within five years.

san juan pueblo relied heavily on agriculture until the late 1940s and 1950s, when tribal members began diversifying their economy through tourism and arts and crafts. many residents also began taking jobs in nearby urban areas, including santa fe and los alamos. farming was done on a small scale and primarily for family consumption.

but bringing fallow land back into production probably would not be financially feasible in itself, brown says.

"farming is a relatively high-risk, low-return endeavor," brown says. "we realized it was absolutely essential to have a product with value added."

the cooperative opted to develop a line of dried, packaged foods. but the question remained how to do that on a scale large enough to make the project profitable.

"the traditional drying method consisted of hanging fruits and vegetables in the sun, but that's just not economically possible on a big production scale," brown says.

brown calls food drying "one of the hottest trends in food processing." he says drying not only preserves food naturally, but enhances its flavor.

the cooperative called sandia national laboratories for help, and sandia technicians and engineers immediately began assisting in the design of a solar dehydration system that fit within the pueblo's budget.

"we immediately viewed this project as a priority because we want to help our neighbors," says dave menicucci of sandia's solar thermal design assistance center. "our involvement consists primarily of technical consulting -- calculations, conceptual ideas, and generally, helping them find ways to do it within their budget."

the technology used in the solar-drying facility is simple but meets the needs of the san juan agricultural cooperative. sandia consultants advised the cooperative to use the pueblo's existing greenhouse and place it next to the drying and processing facility. when modified with a black plastic floor, the 1,200-square-foot greenhouse reaches temperatures between 120 and 140 degrees fahrenheit. a large exhaust fan transports heat to drying units in the processing facility, and a second exhaust fan carries heat to the facility and an adjoining warehouse for comfort during winter months. propane heaters are used as a backup on overcast days and at night.

the $6,500 solar oven looks like a giant bowl, with shiny reflecting panels that direct sunlight toward its center. the oven is capable of reaching several hundred degrees fahrenheit and can bake everything from stews, bread to turkeys. the oven is on loan from burns-milwaukee, inc. and sandia paid for the oven's transportation costs.

the solar oven will alleviate the need for firewood, a precious commodity in many remote areas of the desert southwest. the oven's ultimate success, however, will be how well it is accepted by tribal members since the cultural and traditional aspects of horno-baked bread are strong.

san juan pueblo's use of the solar oven will help determine its potential as a supplemental cooking source in developing countries like mexico.

"the setting at san juan has many of the traditional qualities that are found in villages in mexico," menicucci says. "this is a good place to test it. moreover, it's close to sandia so it's easy for us to stay on top of the situation."

the cooperative has agreed to write periodic reports on the solar oven's use and acceptance.

"the report that the pueblo will produce about the oven will be very important to us and how we proceed with the oven in the future, especially regarding other indian nations and with our mexican neighbors," menicucci says. "we also see the same thing with the solar drying system since the information we accumulate from it also will be very important and of great interest to some of our mexican friends, who are interested in doing some similar things."

sandia is a multiprogram department of energy laboratory, operated by a subsidiary of lockheed martin corporation. with facilities located in albuquerque, n.m., and livermore, calif., sandia has major r&d responsibilities in national defense, energy, environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.

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