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20 • FEBRUARY 2018

A Frontier

Ben Rasmussen and Wendell Hahn walk through Hahn’s pasture land discussing holistic ranching techniques. (Photos by Jay Hemphill)

Food Hub Project brings local produce to local consumers



he ATV wouldn’t start but the sun was shining and the roads were dry enough for the little Ford Focus to make the brief trek to Wendell’s pasture land, just a few minutes from his front door in Gila. We pulled up, opened a few gates and that’s when they came running. A huge black swarm of cows, running towards us from a nearby tree line, toward a form they recognized and trusted. As they approached us in the nearly knee-high, ultra-lush green grass a few of them bucked in excitement, these were happy cows accustomed to wide open spaces, little to no stress and plentiful food. When they noticed two strangers, myself and local photographer Jay Hemphill, they stopped and formed a half circle around us, unsure and cautious. Jay and I came out to Wendell’s Gila River Ranch as part of the Local Food Promotion Project Comida Buena which is a USDA funded program awarded to the Silver City based non-profit, the National Center for Frontier Communities, in 2016. The overall goal of the project is to increase local food production and sales through education, outreach, distribution and marketing of local products. Wendell has been ranching more than 10 years and got into it because he read about the health benefits of pasture-raised meats and the potential for building rangeland soils. His meticulousness about his ranch operation from the ground up represents the very best of our southwest New Mexico food system; dedication, integrity, mastery. The idea for a “know your grower” campaign came up in conversation between Mike Madigan, assistant manag-

er for the Silver City Food Co-op and myself in my role as a Frontier Communities program specialist, and we discussed ways to bring in more local products. “Our community is the heart of the co-op.” Mike said. “It’s a place where the community comes together and feels connected. The connection is very visible between our staff and customers. Now, the folks in our region who are producing some of the foods we sell are also visible. These are our friends and neighbors.” Though remote, farmers in the four-county region produce an estimated $22 million worth of food crops per year while only utilizing 2 percent of cropland for food production. Seventy-two percent of regional farmers report sales of less than $50,000 a year. Despite the output from local farms, only about 1 percent of the product reaches local markets and most of the production is destined for large processors or distributors. Many growers cite a perceived lack of market potential for local food products as one reason for the lack of production. Through NCFC’s 2015 Food Hub Feasibility study, we discovered that residents of Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna counties spend about $9.9 million per year on fresh fruits and vegetables, if we could capture just 10 percent of that total, we could add a million dollars per year to the local economy and increase food security along the way. However, local markets can be tough to enter for small producers. Many grocery chains such as Walmart and Albertsons require the vendor to sell to their headquarters and require contracts, high volumes and pay little.

Additionally, navigating the current landscape of food safety laws and business permits while trying to find adequate markets is a burden to many small and midsize growers. So, we need to be creative if we want to grow our local food economy. In addition to the Silver City Food Co-op and a handful of supportive restaurants in the region there is great potential in nearby metropolitan areas for local food sales. And while it’s prohibitively expensive for a small grower to drive several hours one way to deliver a harvest to Albuquerque, Phoenix, Las Cruces or Santa Fe, if we aggregate products from several growers and distribute it we can save on transportation costs. We tested this model of operation through a series of distributions completed in spring 2017 and sales took off so quickly that we had to halt to gain the necessary certifications, start-up capital, insurance and equipment. The plan is to resume operations in the next couple of months. We are calling it The Southwest New Mexico Food Hub. Our largest markets are in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, where we can cheaply ship boxes of vegetables on an existing freight line on a weekly basis. We didn’t engage in additional marketing because with our capacity at the time, we were maxed out. However, demand far outweighs supply, which in our case is a good problem to have. While at Wendell’s we discussed ways to increase his sales through the hub and direct marketing. He ex-

plained his pasture management techniques of not using any fertilizers in favor of rotational grazing and that his alfalfa fields are just as productive, if not more, than those of his conventional neighbors. In addition to his yield, his soil is looking better and richer every season. Jay and I drove to Deming to visit with Lisa and Francisco of Eden’s Gardens. Eden’s Gardens has been selling to the co-op for several years and are perhaps best known in Silver City for their melons, which arrive sweet, ripe and fly off the shelves. Francisco and Lisa started gardening a few years ago after a health scare and they wanted to eat more fruits and vegetables but were unhappy with the choices in the local grocery stores. So they started a small plot. Soon after they had more food than they knew what to do with, so they began selling at the Las Cruces Farmers Market and eventually found their way to the coop. Francisco grew up in a small village in northern Mexico and has raised food since he could walk. They currently grow a wide variety of annual vegetables and a few fruits. As we walked through the farm he explained how each of the beds gradually came to be over the years as they needed more produce to bring to the market. What amazes me about Francisco’s operation is that even with dozens of varieties of plants, each row, each bed and each tree looked to be in optimal health. The chiles were a deep red with

vibrant leaves, the kale tled under shade cloth proud and the squash out wide in every dir of aphids, mites, mild affliction. Part of their motiva the farm was to avo everything at Eden’s without them. “My soil gets bett Francisco said. “I just and use my chicken m compost from the farm He went on to exp never had a significa and he attributes that and soil health. Each with many different Even weeds can stay. Using business sav on the connection th customers, Francisco reached a sweet spot tion where they are a everything they grow resumes operations, w Eden’s Gardens to product around the re Just down the road and Lisa’s is Rockhou Jason, Lisa’s brother. Jason has three gree main in production a and several acres of spinach, onions and ok al competition at his us desire to increase prod sell a lot of food throug “Ideally, I am loo

Desert Exposure - February 2018  
Desert Exposure - February 2018