Kathleen Gonzalez

 

On a warm December morning in the Española Valley, a group of growers gathered around farmer Roni Stephenson, of Stephenson Natural Farm, to hear about how she harvests the food she grows and sells at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. The farmers ranged from grandpas, who have been farming all their lives, to Stephenson’s interns—new farmers just learning the ropes. They were all there to learn and share best practices to continue to ensure that the food they grow is safe for their families and their customers.

 

We’ve done everything we can think of to make the food we grow be as clean and healthy as it can be.” Stephenson said. “I love farming, and a big part of what I love is teaching it.” Stephenson told the group where to buy food-grade plastic bags and what kinds of soap are the best to clean equipment. She showed them the walk-in cooler that she and her farmer husband, George, built on their back porch. For $350 worth of materials, the Stephensons have a cooler that allows them to safely store their harvest, preserving the freshness and flavor until they head out to the market.

 

Shauna Woodworth and Nina Yozell-Epstein of Farm to Table organized this “Farmers Teaching Farmers” presentation, with the support of USDA funding. Epstein-Yozell sells Stephenson’s “better than organic” lettuce to restaurants in Santa Fe.

 

Although the USDA does not require “small” farmers to be certified in food safety, the restaurants and schools buying the produce want to be assured that food safety protocols are in place. Although very few food recalls have led back to farms (most problems occur in processing plants, such as Sunland, Inc. in eastern NM, which was found to be the source of an outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter), there are some simple procedures that can be followed to ensure food safety on the farm.

Stephenson and her husband attended a training given by the NMSU Cooperative Extension Service last year, and it prompted them to set up protocols, such as the requirement for everyone to tie their hair back; not just on harvest day, but anytime they are working in the fields. Also nail polish is no longer allowed, and strict hand-washing rules have been established.

 

After the discussion on safe harvesting, Thomas Gonzalez and David Griego from the Española office of the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) talked to the farmers about their EQIP reimbursement program, which can assist with the expense of building hoop houses, installing irrigation systems or planting pollinator-friendly hedgerows. In addition, Sam Baca, of the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Institute, and Steve Vigil, of Siete del Norte, spoke about their respective loan programs.

 

Baca said that many farmers were unable to take advantage of the EQIP grant program because the NRCS only reimburses the expense of a project once it is completed and passes inspection. “One way farmers can take advantage of the Institute’s loan program is with a ‘bridge loan’ to cover the upfront costs if these projects,” Baca said. “We recently had a farmer who had an EQIP contract for a high tunnel hoop house, and they borrowed the money to buy the kit. Once the hoop house was built and inspected, they used the EQIP reimbursement to pay off the loan.”

 

In these farmer-to-farmer events we can learn a lot from each other,” says David Fresquez of Monte Vista Organic Farm. “As farmers we have figured out our own ways of doing things. Sometimes it turns out that others have a better idea. One of the many positive outcomes of these trainings is that farmers find ways to work together.” Fresquez and Stephenson have agreed to combine their purchases of organic fertilizer to save money. Additional trainings for farmers are scheduled around the state in 2013.

 

 

Kathleen Gonzalez used to farm and ranch in Mora County. She is now the communications coordinator at Farm to Table. kathleen@farmtotablenm.org

 

 

 

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