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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