Pam Roy and Mark Winne
New Mexico has rich agricultural traditions, but when you add the output of its farms and ranches, agriculture is also the state’s fourth-largest economic sector. Dairy and cattle production make up the largest components, and pecan and alfalfa production have surpassed NM’s favorite traditional food—chile. But about 98 percent of this agricultural production is exported out of state at wholesale or commodity prices.
If you want to look at an opportunity for real economic growth, you should turn to the state’s consumers, who must purchase 98 percent of their food from out-of-state sources. In a report commissioned by the New Mexico Acequia Association, NM family farmers and ranchers would increase their annual income by $392 million if the state’s consumers purchased 15 percent of their food either directly or indirectly from the state’s producers.
As most everyone knows, “local food” is a hot item. Retail stores, restaurants, farmers’ markets and private and public institutions are jumping on the bandwagon. Much of this momentum has been driven by the growth of small-scale agriculture. In the early 1990s, farmers’ markets became a place for NM’s fruit and vegetable producers to develop economic opportunities. For many producers the impetus was to save the family farm.
Over the last two decades, the number of farmers’ markets in NM has tripled to more than 70. They now provide important outlets for 1,000 mostly small-scale producers. These producers have benefited from the addition of public programs such as the Women, Infant and Children Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (WIC FMNP), Senior FMNP and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). These mostly federally funded programs provide critical nutritional assistance to some of NM’s most vulnerable citizens. Combined, these programs have added more than $582,000 to the $8.46 million in farmers’ market sales in 2012—up from $1.4 million in 1998.
In what amounts to a market diversification strategy, farmers have begun selling their fresh products to NM’s public schools. This effort has been aided by a partnership between Farm to Table and the NM Cooperative Extension Service, which provides quality management training to farmers that is designed to meet the schools’ stringent food safety requirements.
A 2014 report, “The Power of Local Procurement,” completed by Farm to Table and New Mexico State University, documented the burgeoning institutional markets and farmer interest in supplying those markets. The report found that the state’s public institutions serve 60 million meals annually through schools, senior centers, corrections facilities and state-run hospitals. Of those, 45 million are served in public schools.
Previous research has found that every dollar spent on food produced in NM adds $1.87 to the economy. One way to capture more of the value and generate higher returns for producers would be converting land from its current cropping patterns to the production of fruits and vegetables that are in high demand at public institutions. For example, in 2012, more than 300,000 acres were planted to hay compared 16,470 acres in fruits and vegetables. The average amount of money the farmer sees for an acre of hay is $1,545. For an acre of selected fruits, it is $7,071, and $7,387 for vegetables.
More than a decade ago, a group of organizations and agencies began to anticipate this institutional market potential for small- to medium-scale farmers in NM. Through the NM Food and Agriculture Policy Council (NMFAP) and its public- and private-sector members, the school setting became a major focus, both to enhance the nutritional opportunities for students and to create new markets for local farmers. This led to the inception of the Farm to Cafeteria Program and legislative initiatives to eliminate competitive foods from NM schools. Simultaneously, the council began to integrate NM-grown produce in school meal programs through appropriations by the state Legislature’s recurring investment of $85,000 (specific to the Albuquerque area) and $240,000 (statewide). An additional appropriation of $100,000 was made available for one year in 2013.
Through a concerted effort by Farm to Table, NMFAP Council, the NM Cooperative Extension Service, NM Department of Agriculture, NM School Nutrition Association and NM Food and Nutrition Services (NMFNA), the “farm-to-school” program has demonstrated considerable potential to develop and expand market opportunities for the state’s farmers, while keeping more of its food dollars in-state.
Kids Benefit from Local Food
Betsy Cull, assistant director for Student Nutrition for the Santa Fe Public Schools (SFPS), has been cultivating the fine art of farm-to-school for 13 years. The Santa Fe School District refined the process to the point where it has special bid procedures in place just for farmers. For the second year in a row, Cull has secured proposals from six area farmers for such items as apples, melons and, for the first time, pinto beans. “We purchased $45,000 of local farm produce in the 2013-14 school year,” she says, “and that was without the benefit of apples, most of which were wiped out by late spring freezes in 2013. I’m confident we’ll be buying over $50,000 in 2014-15.”
She had to find solutions to obstacles that farmers faced in selling their goods to a large public institution. With one central warehouse, SFPS gives farmers the ease of delivering to a single location rather than dozens of individual schools. Making timely deliveries, given the vagaries of harvest schedules and driving times, had been a problem for farmers. But that became part of the training process, you might say, as farmers soon learned to comply with the school’s expectations.
And Now a Word from Our Farmer
With demand growing for local food—and the potential within NM’s schools being a large part of that demand—the question must be asked if there are enough NM farmers. As Cull sees it, there are not enough farmers to go around, both now and in the future. This suggests an opportunity—as well as a major challenge—one that will only be resolved only as schools learn the valuable lessons acquired over 13 years in Santa Fe, and as farmers recognize that institutional markets are opening up for them.
Farming is a tricky proposition under the best of circumstances. The vagaries of nature, an irregular labor supply and the fickleness of the market often push farmers to the breaking point. And of course there’s the need for land and water, neither of which anyone is making more of these days.
As Anthony Wagner sees it, if you want to buy NM-grown food, he’ll grow it. Wagner is a 55-year-old farmer who, with his two brothers and their father, runs the Wagner Farm, founded in Corrales in 1910. On 100 acres in Corrales, 120 acres in Los Lunas and 200 acres in Socorro, the Wagners are hard at work growing apples, sweet corn, chile, melons and alfalfa. With the exception of the alfalfa, all of those products are sold at five farmers’ markets, the Wagner’s farm stand and to several school districts including Albuquerque.
The school segment of their market has seen explosive growth. In 2010, the first year the Wagners sold to schools, they grossed all of $800. But by the close of the 2013-14 school year, Wagner Farm had grossed $85,000. Wagner sets a price for his goods that he thinks is fair, and he only recalls one occasion when one of his bids was rejected.
Part of the process has become easier and more efficient for farmers due to the central warehouse operated by the NMFANA. Like the warehouse in Santa Fe, the FANS facility receives local produce and distributes to multiple schools and school districts. Working with Farm to Table has also made the dealings between farmers and schools a friendlier exchange. The nonprofit’s training and brokerage services, as well as its vigorous advocacy efforts at the state Legislature, have facilitated farmers’ dealings with schools.
The potential for growth in farm-to-school sales is strong. As this connection is nurtured, it will, of course, be the children who benefit. “My kids go to the local high school and eat local food, and it’s good for them!” Wagner unabashedly proclaimed. “The apples are coming straight from my trees and not traveling more than 50 miles. My melons are picked ripe and ready. Everything going to the schools is harvested the day before delivery. If the schools want to buy more, I’ll grow more.”
A way for the community to get involved is to support state Legislature’s initiatives such as the “NM-Grown Fresh Fruits and Vegetables for School Meals,” a $1.44-million request to help support schools in the purchasing of farmers’ produce, economically benefiting farmers while providing students with healthy local options. In addition, the Farmers’ Market Double Bucks Program” appropriation request could provide additional resources for low-income New Mexicans and provide them an opportunity to shop at farmers’ markets, again stimulating local dollars in our local food and farming economy. For more information call Pam Roy at 505.660.8403 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Pam Roy is executive director of Farm to Table. Mark Winne is a Santa Fe–based food-policy consultant.
Events for New Mexico Food and Farm Enthusiasts
Wednesday, Jan. 14, 11 am–1 pm
NM Food and Agriculture Policy Council Meeting
Mid-Region Council of Governments
This meeting will focus on priority legislation and highlights of the legislative session including the “3rd Annual NM Food and Farms Day.” For details, contact Pam Roy: 505.660.8403, email@example.com. To participate in the Policy Council on a regular basis and receive news updates, sign up on the Farm to Table website: www.farmtotablenm.org
Wednesday, Jan. 28, 8 am–2 pm
New Mexico Food and Farms Day
State Capitol, Santa Fe
9 am press conference. Display tables by New Mexico food and farm groups, presentations to the full House and Senate. For information, contact Pam Roy: 505.660.8403 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, Feb. 17, 6–9 pm
Santa Fe Community Convention Center
A legislative event showcasing the diversity of agriculture in New Mexico. Learn about farm and ranch-related organizations and agencies. Mingle with legislators.