There is a growing demand for locally grown food in New Mexico, but farmers here are getting older. The average age is 65. However, there are programs that aim to inspire and train up-and-coming young farmers.
“It get’s so peaceful with the wind blowing, the birds, you’re in a whole different world down here,” Don Bustos said, standing in his asparagus patch. He has long, salt and pepper hair and deep smile lines on his face. He’s the owner of Santa Cruz Farms, just outside of Española, where he’s been farming for decades.
“Right here,” Bustos points to the ground, “we planted asparagus. You can’t see it on the radio but those beautiful green spears are popping out of the ground.”
Over the years, Bustos said, his farming practices changed dramatically.
"In the mid 1980’s I had more cucumbers then I knew what to do with,” Bustos explained. “So I went down to the farmers market. I didn't sell very many cucumbers but there were a lot of beautiful woman there and that kept me going year after year."
In the 1990's he went organic on his three-and-a-half acre plot. Now that farm produces 72 different varieties of fruits and vegetables.
“All I use is a little bit of new technology that allows us to pay our bills and be sustainable,” Bustos explained.
That new technology includes solar panels to warm the soil in several 100-foot beds and cold frames covered in plastic that keep the heat in. That way, even when it gets well below freezing in the dead of winter, Bustos still has rows of dark leafy greens ready for harvest.
The majority of Bustos’ winter crops end up on school cafeteria trays. This year alone the New Mexico legislature gave public schools more than $350,000 to buy fresh food directly from local producers.
“You should have three reliable outlets,” Bustos said, explaining his success, “so that you’re never worried that the farmers market isn’t doing good or the store is closing down or the restaurant is closing.”
This strategy of growing dozens of different crops year-round is being used as a model to train young farmers across the state as part of an American Friends Service Committee program.
Getting into the program is competitive, but farmers who make the cut get a small stipend and work on an experimental farm three days a week for a year.
This year a six-person crew is working the Sostenga Farm in Española. They’ve come up with a marketing plan for their crops and are already selling cases of mixed greens to grocery stores.
Norberto Armijo and Donna Gonzalez are a young couple from Chamisal who want to fine tune their skills and build their confidence in business.
“I’ve been farming my whole life I’d like to say even though I’m only 20 years old,” Gonzalez said.
“This is a bit of a sharpening for me and my significant other over here on our first farm,” Armijo chimed in. “This is to teach you how to make money with these traditional ways we’ve been taught, this is like the business aspect of it.”
Over the last decade more than 150 people have gone through the program.
We import 80 percent of the food we eat in New Mexico according to John Garlisch, so there’s a lot of room for small-scale farmers to get in the game. Garlisch is an NMSU agricultural agent whose job is to inspire and offer support to local farmers.
“More people want to buy local,” Garlisch explained, “but where is it and where can it be found? There’s still a huge demand that is not being met.”
The proof, Garlisch said, is that more restaurants, grocery stores, schools and hospitals are looking to fill shelves—and plates—with local food. And according to the New Mexico Farmers Marketing Association the number of markets has almost doubled in the last decade.
“So, yes! I am optimistic here for New Mexico,” Garlisch said. “A farmer is always hopeful. The farmer plants the seed, the farmer waters and the farmer hopes for a crop along the way.”
Garlisch said fostering and growing this new generation of farmers bodes well for New Mexico’s agricultural future.