Patrick W. Staib and Sayrah Namaste
“We wanted to dispel the myth that you can’t make a living farming,” says Don Bustos, director of the New Mexico program of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). AFSC is an international nonprofit organization and Nobel Peace prize recipient that has worked in NM since 1976 tocreate economic viability through training small farmers in sustainable agricultural practices, thereby protecting land and water rights and traditional cultural practices.
AFSC’s hands-on, farmer-to-farmer training program teaches beginning farmers high-value-crop selection, sequential planting, crop aggregation, year-round production in passive-solar cold frames, and managing a farmer network. Teaching farmers to aggregate their produce was Don’s idea to help them access larger markets.
AFSC partnered with South Valley-based community organizations La Plazita Institute and Valle Encantado in 2009, with significant funding from the USDA. These organizations recruited community members who wanted to learn to farm and provided training sites that were developed into more than a dozen small farms in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
The trainees participated in AFSC’s popular year-long program by working together on their farm tasks, processing and marketing. The group training provided an ideal opportunity to learn the cooperative approach to aggregated production and marketing. “You’re like my brothers now,” said a farm trainee to the others in his class. “If anything goes wrong at your farm, I’ll come out and help fix it, and I know you’d do the same for me.”
AFSC, La Plazita Institute and Valle Encantado established and operated a farmer-owned network that conducted sales, marketing, processing, permitting and coordination. The trainees named this farmer-owned network The Agri-Cultura Network (ACN). By the end of the first year of the project, ACN was servicing seven restaurants, two grocery outlets, had obtained vendor status and won a bid to supply produce to the local food program at Albuquerque Public Schools (APS).
The project partners and AFSC staff soon discovered that coordination of a produce-for-market [program, operation?] over several sites required significant oversight and logistical support. By the second year, ACN was operating seven sites, with six farmers working to aggregate their harvests. ACN was supplying almost 150 pounds of salad mix to APS a week and had developed a system for ordering, processing, packaging, labeling, distribution and invoicing. In one year, the trainees more than doubled their food production and more than tripled their sales.
AFSC also taught trainees how to construct cold frames for year-round greens production for wholesale and institutional markets. This kept the farmers busy in the cold months. An important facet of this effort was to emphasize collective planning events. AFSC worked with the Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension office to conduct business-planning workshops and held group seed selection workshops that culminated in a collective seed order. The AFSC project team also worked with ACN farmers and incoming trainees to schedule planting dates and varieties around seasonal availability and marketability.
One innovation as a result of these events was to coordinate farms to share the expense of early-season plant starts. ACN farmers worked with AFSC staff to select diverse heirloom tomato varieties and then to get the tomato starts in the cold frames before the last spring freeze. ACN farmers grew a wide array of tomatoes and were able to bring them to market much earlier in the season.
As a result, the farmers learned to target higher price points through maximizing the appropriate technology of cold frames with drip irrigation to get a head start on tomatoes and then extend their harvest into November. It was the farmers themselves who enacted this innovation, based on their observations and experience from the previous growing season. AFSC simply provided technical and logistical support.
One wonderful but unexpected impact of the program was the community participation. Much of the land the trainees farm has been lent to them by community members, including a few widows, who saw the farms in their neighborhood that AFSC and the partners developed and wanted their land to produce food again. The inter-generational relationships and community revitalization that resulted exceeded everyone’s expectations.
As this project draws to a close in October 2012, AFSC is proud to be implementing similar training and aggregation models in Anthony and Embudo, NM. While there is no uniform approach to community development through sustainable farming, the shared experience of farmers and communities willing to collaborate will help ease new groups’ transitions. There is much work to do, but this innovative approach is likely to help accomplish the goals of preserving water rights and reducing food insecurity within New Mexico.
Patrick W. Staib and Sayrah Namaste work for the American Friends Service Committee and were key to the success of this project. Contact: 505.842.7343