Studying our Foodshed From the Ground Up

This year’s Foodshed Field School instruction started from the ground up – literally.  Our group began by stepping outside the conventional food system and participating in a foraging activity on campus. After a few sweaty hours of gathering and mapping edible plants on the university grounds we were surprised at the abundance and diversity of what we had found. As a drenching late spring rain broke the sweltering heat, we created a lunch of sautéed nopalitos (young prickly pear cactus pads), cholla cactus buds, verdolagas (purslane), quelites (lambsquarters) and neon orange daylilies on a green Coleman stove, with tiny apricots and sticky sweet mulberries for dessert. That afternoon we each pondered the question How do you value food? while watching Dive!, a film about dumpster diving and food waste in the US.

After mulling over issues of food access and affordability, we took a first step into the food system, and performed a survey of the food stores in the university area. Dividing ourselves into family groups of various income levels (from $20,000-$70,000/yr), we walked to the five nearest retail outlets (Farm Fresh Produce, La Montañita Co-op, Smith’s, Family Dollar and Tri-H Convenience Store) and performed price comparisons, with the ultimate aim of buying a healthy lunch within our respective income brackets. Some of us had less than two dollars to spend on a lunch for a family of four. Finding a healthy lunch with this kind of budget was challenging to say the least, and made the easy, cheap, high calorie fast food dollar menu seem all the more alluring. Depending on  spending power, leisure time, infrastructure to prepare meals, and access to transportation, food “choices” are not as broad as they may seem.

Our group spent the remainder of the week in the field, visiting local farms, distributors, and value-added producers, to get a sense of food production in our own backyard. We were able to compare multiple operations of various scales. Sol Harvest Farm is a six-month old, two-acre, one-employee farm in the North Valley, operating on the Farm & Table Restaurant property. Ric Murphy grows pesticide-free produce that is used in the restaurant’s dishes, and also runs a weekly Farm Stand and 20-member CSA (community supported agriculture) program. Our group toured Ric’s hoophouse and open fields, and learned about companion planting techniques and crop rotation in small-scale intensive production. We weeded rows of vegetables under the sweltering New Mexico sun, and then sampled some of the fruits of his labor during a decadent meal on the restaurant’s rustic-chic patio.

Contrast Sol Harvest with Skarsgard Farms, a 9-year old, 40-acre, 30-employee, Organic certified operation in the South Valley. Skarsgard Farms runs a four-season regional CSA program with almost 2000 members. Organic produce from California, Colorado, Arizona and Mexico is aggregated to supplement the produce that is grown in Albuquerque. At this point in the season, about 45% of the produce offerings are coming directly from the farm. Various value-added and prepared food items from New Mexico are also available to add to the CSA box. The 10,000-square foot Skarsgard Farm warehouse distributes about 1300 orders per week (either via home delivery or at multiple pick-up locations) and now runs the Harvest Truck, a food truck that prepares delicious, healthy burritos, sandwiches, salads and juices using fruits, veggies and meats from the farm. Monte Skarsgard, the farm’s owner, has learned over the years that green business practices are also financially savvy choices. Switching from recyclable cardboard to reusable coolers for the CSA orders has saved the company almost $20,000 per year. Members customize and pre-order their CSA boxes, which means less overproduction or overharvesting, and less food waste. Blemished and extremely ripe produce that cannot be sold in the CSA is used in the Harvest Truck’s prepared foods, and will eventually go into value-added products.

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The 18,000-square foot La Montañita Co-op Distribution Center (CDC) warehouse also aggregates and distributes local and regional products to co-ops, groceries, restaurants, hotels and buying clubs throughout the state – although their focus is on more durable foods, as opposed to fresh produce. Of the $3 million of product sold out of the CDC last year, about half went directly to La Montañita Co-op. The Co-op is a leader in the local food movement, and maintains this position through their philanthropic community-based development work. The Co-op Trade Foodshed Initiative works to support the local economy by providing opportunities for growth and development to local and regional food producers. For example, the Co-op has assisted in the development of the Sweetwater Beef Co-op, the Hatch Chile Ristra Program, and the Old Windmill Dairy.

Local pueblos are also creating economically viable food-based opportunities for their communities. Santa Ana Pueblo’s Agriculture Program Director, Joseph Bronk, oversees the Pueblo’s Grain Mill, Tribal Farm, Native Plant Nursery and Online Cooking Post – all of which began with a USDA grant that aimed to help the Pueblo identify new business enterprises. We met with Ray Leon, the mill grinder at the Blue Corn Grain Mill, for a tour of the small operation. The Mill produces blue cornmeal, atolé, polenta pancake mix, and can grind up to 600 pounds per day. By roasting and milling the corn, value is added so that the product can be sold at about twice the price of fresh corn. Currently, The Body Shop is the Mill’s largest customer, ordering about 2600 pounds of cornmeal three times per year for use in their cosmetics and body care products. The Mill is about to be certified organic, which will open up their product to the lucrative California market.

Not only did our group tour farms, restaurants, distribution facilities and value-added production, we were also able to learn about inputs necessary to the agricultural process. One of those is the humic acid and mycorrhizal fungi soil amendments that Michael Melendrez produces at Soil Secrets in Los Lunas, NM. These inoculants alter the soil foodweb such that more water is retained and minerals are sequestered in the root zone. The Soil Secrets amendments have become particularly popular in the Belen pecan orchards, where the soils are clay-rich and compacted.

Ultimately, the first week of the field school gave us a glimpse of the many interconnections in our local food system. Skarsgard Farms trained Farmer Ric of Sol Harvest Farm. Sol Harvest grows food for Farm & Table Restaurant. Farm & Table purchases local and regional products from La Montañita Co-op. La Montañita Co-op sells the Santa Ana Pueblo’s blue cornmeal and atolé. The Pueblo’s Native Plant Nursery uses soil amendments from Soil Secrets. You get the picture!

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Round Two of the Field School

We are a group of 14 undergrad and graduate students, plus instructors from numerous departments and programs, who will spend the month of June traveling around New Mexico learning about food systems and the food value chain. Our interests run the gamut from biology, geography and nutrition to political science, environmental planning and media arts. However, food is the great integrator: our passion for sustainable food systems that are environmentally, socially and economically healthy unites us in a common mission to experience our state’s foodshed firsthand. We’ll learn from a variety of agricultural mentors, challenge ourselves to ask tough questions and propose solutions, dream up new career paths, and hopefully have a little fun along the way!

We’ll spend the first week in the Albuquerque area, splitting our time between on-campus exercises and off-campus field trips. The second week we will travel through the Pecos Watershed. The Four Corners region will be our destination for the third week, and the Taos area for the last. Follow our adventures as we explore 25 diverse sites in the state.

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Edible Santa Fe Article

Check out the Fall 2011 Edible Santa Fe article that the field school instructors wrote. The article, entitled Honeymoon in the Foodshed, describes how the field school students learned about our state’s food systems and how to marry producers with consumers, land with health, and culture with wellbeing.

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Upcoming Events

Student Project Showcase – August 27th

All university and community members are cordially invited to attend the 2011 UNM Summer Foodshed Field School student media and poster presentations! This free event will be held Saturday, August 27th from 9:30am to 1pm in the Hibben Center on UNM Main Campus. Students will present their media and poster projects, which examine and celebrate the current state of our foodshed. The event will conclude with a delicious lunch of local foods. Please RSVP by August 21st to Terry Horger at thorger@unm.edu.

Local Food Festival and Field Day – October 9th

The Local Food Festival will take place on October 9th from 11am to 4pm at the Gutierrez-Hubbell House in the South Valley. Enjoy local produce and value-added products. Participate in hands-on workshops and cooking demonstrations. Listen to live local music and watch short films. The UNM Foodshed Field School students will be at the festival presenting their posters on various topics related to New Mexico’s diverse foodshed.

Burque Bioneers Conference – October 21st

The ‘Burque Bioneers Conference will take place at the National Hispanic Cultural Center on October 21st from 9am to 4pm. The conference will highlight national speakers from the annual Bioneers Conference, Breakdown to Breakthrough: Reimagining Civilization in the Age of Nature in California, and will bring in numerous local speakers for hands-on workshops, panel discussions and presentations. Local speakers will cover topics pertaining to permaculture, sustainable agriculture, seed saving, homesteading, community building, alternative transportation and water. We will present an overview of the 2011 Foodshed Field School and our students will show some of their short media pieces at this conference.

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July 2011 Agriculture Collaborative Meeting

On the Road with UNM’s Summer Foodshed Field School

UNM Foodshed Field School students were given the opportunity to showcase their media projects at this month’s Mid Region Council of Governments (MRCOG) Agriculture Collaborative Meeting. Dr. Bruce Milne, Director of the UNM Sustainability Studies Program, provided a brief overview of the field school to the audience of about 40 community members, and then played the student media pieces.

Six of the fourteen field school students were able to present at today’s meeting. First was Kimberly Barnett’s piece, which featured student voices describing their favorite parts of the field school, and provided a great synopsis of the course. Next, Valerie Gurule presented a short piece on acequias. Amy Jones’ piece followed, with an original take on the concept of ayuda mutua, or mutual aid, as seen in various agricultural communities across the state. Brittany Herrera presented a short piece on Curandera Laura Alonso, which provided a great segue into Layla Wall’s piece about optimizing health and nutrition by eating traditional foods within our foodshed. Tiana Baca-Bosiljevac wrapped up the media presentations with a “green hero” piece on Joe Garcia, Outreach Director of La Plazita Gardens in the South Valley. Strong work, ladies!

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The student media pieces were well received by audience. During the panel discussion that followed, students received questions about:

  1. The opportunities and barriers apparent in our state’s current food system
  2. If the students’ personal eating habits changed during the course of the field school
  3. How students will continue their work on campus over the upcoming semesters
  4. How we can work to reach the goal of 10% local food consumption in the state
  5. How to deal with the issue of the high cost of local food in a global marketplace where food prices are artificially low due to subsidies and unfair labor practices
  6. Potential career paths students have identified in the local foodshed
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Green Fire Times Article

Check out the July 2011 Green Fire Times article that field school students and instructors wrote. The article, entitled Orphans of the Land, describes how students seek to connect to the land and learn invaluable knowledge from their agricultural mentors (both young and old) throughout the state of New Mexico.

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Meat and Dairy

Today was the final day of the summer field school! We began by meeting with Dr. Robert Hagevoort, the NMSU Dairy Extension Specialist based out of the Agricultural Science Center at Clovis, and Beverly Idsinga, Executive Director of the Dairy Producers of New Mexico. At the Alltech biotechnology facility in Clovis, Dr. Hagevoort spoke to us about sustainability in the New Mexico dairy industry.

New Mexico and Texas together form the third largest milkshed in the US, after California and Wisconsin. Herd sizes in New Mexico are relatively large: about 2,100 head on average, compared to 170 head average throughout the US. There are 150 dairies in New Mexico – the majority located in the eastern part of the state – and each cow is producing around 24,300 gallons of milk per year. According to Dr. Hagevoort, today fewer cows produce more milk, due to better management, feed and living conditions. This means that the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk has been reduced by about two-thirds since the 1940s. For comparison, the US produced 117 billion pounds of milk from 25.6 billion cattle in 1944, whereas today 186 billion pounds of milk are produced from 9.2 billion cattle. Ultimately, the process is more efficient…but is it more sustainable? Economically speaking, the dairy industry does great things for New Mexico, bringing in almost $3 billion annually in sales of milk and other indirect and value-added business associated with the industry.

Dr. Hagevoort is especially interested in building New Mexico’s capacity for renewable energy and creating novel economic opportunities for the dairy industry. He is currently working toward establishing biomass cooperatives that would aggregate manure from local dairies, and building facilities that would then refine that material into biogas using methane digesters. According to Dr. Hagevoort’s calculations, 5 kWh of electricity can be produced from the daily waste of one cow. With about 350,000 dairy cattle in the state, over 21 billion MWh of electricity could be produced annually, enough to satisfy 3% of New Mexico’s total energy usage.

After the presentation we drove out to the Do-Rene Dairy, where we got a tour by owners Doug and Irene Handley. Recently the Do-Rene Dairy received the New Mexico Environmental Department’s Green Zia award for its commitment to environmental protection and effective management of waste. The Handleys manage two dairy sites, one with 2,100 head and the other with 3,100 head of cattle. Together, the two locations produce between three and five tankers of milk per day (for reference, a tanker holds about 9,000 gallons of milk). The Handleys sell most of their milk to the Clovis-based Southwest Cheese Company, one of the largest cheese producers in North America. Southwest Cheese can process 200 tankers of milk into cheese every day! According to Dr. Hagevoort, about 60% of New Mexican milk goes toward making cheese.

At the Do-Rene Dairy, cows are milked twice a day by an automatic milking system. The animals file into a raised chute where they are separated from one another by small metal gates. An attendant attaches a milking apparatus to the udder of each cow after cleaning the udder with an iodine solution. The apparatus detaches itself after a prescribed amount of time, the iodine cleaning process is repeated, and then the cattle are released. The milk is pumped in plastic lines to a number of chilled tanks, where it is held before being transferred to the tanker truck. To milk the Handley’s two herds of cattle using their current automated setup requires two 8-hour shifts of continuous milking beginning at 5am. After touring the milking barn, we drove through the covered dirt areas where the cattle are kept outside and fed. We ended at the calf hutches, where the female calves are kept in individual plastic shelters and fed buckets of milk until six months of age. After that the calves are transferred to a larger group pen until they are old enough to be bred and become milk producers.

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Our final stop on the trip was at the Mennonite-run Fort Sumner Processing Facility in Fort Sumner. It was akin to taking a step back in time: As we entered the store area, a Mennonite woman wearing a simple cloth bonnet, long-sleeved white blouse and long dark skirt stepped in and asked for a dozen eggs. After a moment she realized she had no cash with her and asked to have the cost of the eggs put on her account. That sense of individual care and personal interaction echoes through much of the work that is done at the Fort Sumner Processing Facility.

We met with Darren Burns, owner of the facility, and he showed us around the cut and wrap room, the aging room and the kill floor. In the aging room, mirror-image sides of beef hung from the ceiling; the fat on the grassfed carcasses was yellow (due to high levels of omega three fatty acids), whereas the fat on the cornfed carcasses was a pale white.  Darren had slaughtered a cow (with a single shot to the forehead) just before our arrival and we watched as he skinned the animal, drained its blood and disemboweled it. For many, it was the first time to witness such an event, and we felt humbled that this animal had died to feed a local family. We learned that offal and blood from the facility are composted with woodchips at the nearby landfill. Hides are packed in salt and picked up periodically by a buyer who uses them in his upholstery business.

The Fort Sumner Processing Facility is set up mainly to serve the surrounding community. Darren can process up to four animals per day, and due to excessive customer demand no longer carries the USDA Inspection seal. Darren found that when his meats were certified USDA Inspected, he was overwhelmed with customers from all across the state demanding specialty retail meat orders, and was no longer able to serve all of his smaller local customers. Even though the USDA Inspection seal brought in business from a larger part of the state, it became an impediment for Darren because of the restricted work hours and lost profit. USDA Inspectors are paid by the federal government to work Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm; any overtime must be paid by the facility. Because Darren normally starts work well before 8am, and also works on Saturdays, he would either have to pay the Inspector overtime wages or reduce his own work hours just to secure the inspection seal – so, he decided to give it up. This means that meats processed at his facility cannot be sold through a grocery store or co-op, but can be sold to private parties, like families or individuals.

On the drive home, about 45 minutes east of Albuquerque, the skies turned dark and we got the first substantial rain of the summer. We rolled the van windows down and stuck our arms and faces outside, savoring the cool drops on our skin. Rejuvenation. Growth. The rain led me to reflect on our experiences over the past month. Our understanding of the breadth and diversity of the current foodshed (and opportunities for future growth) has grown immensely. However, this was possible only because our numerous hosts were gracious enough to share their most precious resources with us – passion, knowledge and time.

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