University of Wisconsin Center for Wisconsin
Rural Cooperatives, July/August 1999, p. 14-15.
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service 

Boosting Rural New Mexico

By Kristin Kelleher

Information Specialist
USDA Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education


Northern New Mexicans remain deeply linked to the dramatic landscapes and histories of their lands. Amid the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and in the path of the Rio Grande lie communities with firm ties to the cultures of ancient Native Americans and 16th-century Spanish settlers, both of which highly valued agriculture.

Even so, the influences of modern life and competing economic development now challenge the rural health of the area. The pull of such boom-or-bust industries as mining and tourism lured a generation of people away from their land and agrarian way of life. As in other areas, the newer industries have proven to be less stable and lucrative for many local inhabitants.

Now, through a strong partnership of northern New Mexico producers, community development leaders and agricultural professionals, a promising mix of small-scale farming and value-added enterprises is emerging and reconnecting the community to its agricultural resources.

"This year, we expect to bring in $100,000 of agricultural income to this part of New Mexico, where there was essentially none a year ago," says Craig Mapel, a marketing specialist from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA).

Team leverages SARE funds

Mapel leads a project funded by USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program to revive agricultural production in the region. He and a team from the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service and the Taos County Economic Development Center are leveraging SARE funds with other public and private assistance to make a significant change in the quality of rural life for Hispanics, Native Pueblo Indians and other families on limited incomes.

Mapel's six-figure estimate refers to the market value of a recent harvest of organic wheat made by a farmer cooperative in Costilla, N.M. It's the inaugural crop for the growers after a generation of local people stopped farming. The farmer cooperative has also served as the impetus for members' spouses to work together to build a greenhouse in which they grow plants and flowers for sale to local residents.

"The cooperative has become much more than just a small grains project," explains Rey Torres of the Taos County Cooperative Extension Service.

The small grain production project in Costilla is one of three hands-on efforts to re-teach Hispanic and Native Pueblo farmer cooperatives how to grow and market products to boost their annual incomes and improve their quality of life.

Other initiatives to enhance sustainable agriculture in the region include a community garden project and food processing and marketing assistance at the Taos County Economic Development Center, both of which intend to jumpstart value-added agribusinesses.

"This revitalization project got started because the local people came to us and asked for help to make it happen," adds Torres. "It's been successful because we've combined the grassroots desires and interests of the community with a leadership team that emphasizes the strengths of its players."

The technical expertise of Cooperative Extension linked with the marketing know-how of NMDA and the community activism of development center directors Terrie Bad Hand and Pati Martinson have combined to create diverse, de-centralized "incubators" for long-term economic success in the region, says Torres.

Farming adds stability

Lonnie Roybal, a Costilla landowner and first-time wheat grower, says farming is the only thing he and his neighbors can rely on.

His friend and cooperator Juan Montes agrees. 'We're after a strong sustainable community that's not dependent on tourism or other up-and-down economies," he says.

Del Jimenez, extension agent for the grains project, expects far-reaching effects from the agricultural production efforts. "This work benefits more than just a few small towns. The organic wheat produced by the growers fuels niche markets for local mills and bakers, and launches a state product of organic flour that can be labeled as made and milled in New Mexico."

In another part of northern New Mexico, in the commercial kitchen at the Taos County Economic Development Center, "High Desert Delights'' pastry chef Leslie Pedlar has fashioned a business out of baking brownies, cakes, cookies and other sweets for local restaurants and shops.

"I probably would have quit by now if this kitchen was not available. It's very difficult to find a restaurant kitchen that will accommodate a small operation like mine," says Pedlar.

The kitchen is part of a gleaming, up-to-code food processing center housed at the Taos County Economic Development Center. Pedlar says combining reasonably priced, accessible work space with the legal and financial services offered at the business park is a great way to give small enterprises like hers a fighting chance to succeed.

The dynamic team behind the development center business park are co-directors Bad Hand and Martinson. They carved out a strategy for community action in Taos County by investigating the desires and strengths of its citizens.

'You have to go to the people," says Bad Hand. "In this area, we learned that agriculture could be a seed of change because of its link to the people's heritages."

Looking to the future, Bad Hand and Martinson say they aim to get the development center's commercial kitchen functioning 24 hours a day with locally produced goods. They also plan to have its companion community garden act as a catalyst for more food business opportunities for limited-income people, as well as an entry point for healthy eating and nutrition education.

Co-op to buy mill

On the wheat production front, Torres says the farmers had to learn how to work together just as they needed to renew their agricultural skills. After seven years of assistance and advice from outside sources, the cooperative members are about to take a big step. They will mill their own flour for sale to restaurants and bakeries. The farmers want to capitalize on the consumer trend of shopping local to support rural America.

"Because of the changing face of rural America, people realize that, unless you support the local economy—farmers, producers and processors—your community is not going to survive," Torres says. "This is not just about supporting an industry, though. It's about supporting a lifestyle.

"A few years ago," he adds, "these producers would have just marketed their wheat on the open market. Now these same producers have moved on to something unique—their own mill. We know the stamina is there; The will is there. Moving to this critical point has given these cooperative members great hopes for their futures."

First funded by Congress in 1988, USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education the SARE program helps increase knowledge about—and helps farmers and ranchers adopt—practices that are economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially responsible. To learn more about how to apply for a SARE grant, access SARE research findings or obtain SARE books and informational bulletins, contact Valerie Berton, (301) 405-3186; vberton~wam.umd.edu or visit www.sare.org.


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