Our co-operative work began 14 years ago in northern New Mexico, supported by funding from the American Friends Service Committee. Juan Bustos organized small groups of farmers there and the model spread. Now in the mid Rio Grande, we have a co-op with five major farmers making decisions and a 501 C3 with a board of directors. We have allied farmers who sell through us and employees called the Green Team. They work out of the South Valley Economic Development Center, washing and packaging fruits and veggies and checking for quality.
Part of our financial plan is to sell boxes through our community-supported agriculture (CSA). We hope to sell over 300 boxes this year. We deliver them to various locations in the area. You can go to our website and look under La Cosecha to order. We also sell at farmers’ markets in the area.
A big problem for small farmers is how to have a year-round income. We raise veggies in winter in our solar cold frames, so our network needs a year-round market. We hope this can happen soon.
Many thanks to Elli Levy, the project coordinator for Tres Hermanas Farms, for this interview. Elli has a master’s degree in agroecology, the study of sustainable agriculture, and experience working at Los Poblanos and other organic farms around the world.
Tell me about your farm and how and why you got started.
Tres Hermanas Farm was created thanks to a grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to Lutheran Family Services to provide training and support for refugees to pursue careers as farmers. We provide land, tools, seeds, water, instruction, and community support to help program participants gain the knowledge and skills they need to be successful farmers. Our clients are mostly from the Central African Republic, Afghanistan and Cuba. Many of them start by working in the community gardens we partner with in Albuquerque, and then progress to taking on larger plots of land at Tres Hermanas Farm. We sell produce at the Downtown Growers’ Market twice a month, and we have also worked with other local vendors such as La Montañita Coop and Mogro. In terms of pricing the produce, each farmer gets to decide their own pricing, and while we might let them know what other sellers are asking for to provide context, it is ultimately each individual person’s decision.
What special considerations are needed to farm in New Mexico?
Water scarcity is definitely a concern. We are adjusting our growing practices by expanding our drip irrigation system, as well as choosing to grow crops that are better adapted to our environment. For example, NMSU recently donated cayenne and habanero chili pepper seeds that they developed for this climate, and we will be processing most of the chilies we harvest into hot sauce in order to add value to those crops, resulting in a higher income for our farmers. Climate change does make it challenging to plan our crop schedule, and we rely heavily on our greenhouse and hoop house to protect plants from things like late hail storms.
What is the economic reality of being a small farmer?
This is a question we are asking ourselves as well, and part of our work involves assessing the economic feasibility of farming as a viable career path. We are testing different methods of generating higher and more stable income through projects like producing hot sauce, but we recognize the fact that there are many hurdles and risks involved in farming, which we can only adapt to. There is no single solution to make being a small farmer more feasible, but we do know that access to land, tools, water, education/training, community support, and distribution channels are vital to helping new farmers get started. In terms of sustaining a career as a small farmer, just growing food is not always enough to make ends meet, and we see other local farmers branching into value-added products, specialty crops, events, and many other creative methods to generate reliable income.
What are the joys and frustrations of being a small farmer and how does the future look to you?
There has been so much community support for both the gardens and Tres Hermanas Farm. This has been very encouraging, and the personal connections our clients make through this program are a wonderful aspect of it. Additionally, working with the land helps familiarize new arrivals to the place they currently live in. We hope that in addition to providing supplemental income, fresh food for their families, and community connection, clients also develop a sense of belonging to this place which is now their home. Last season we had a farmer bring seeds for a plant that was used medicinally in their home country, and the plants thrived here! Now this farmer is able to share that crop with other refugees from their country, and we hope to increase the number of varieties that are familiar to the families we work with. Looking forward, we hope to engage more families in a variety of agriculture-related opportunities, including cooking, nutrition and gardening classes which started this spring, and connecting clients with additional community partners to join them in their resettlement journey.
Whole Heart Farm is a small-scale farm located in the South Valley of Albuquerque, NM. We grow a select assortment of vegetables, focusing on baby roots and leafy greens. The farm practices no-till methods and meets organic standards. Our entire growing space is about 1/3 of an acre on a one-acre urban lot. We grow year-round with the help of hoop houses. Our main source of income is from our email list. Customers make purchases directly from the farm via a weekly-updated online store and pick up their orders from the farm. In addition to our weekly pick up, we also sell bulk amounts of vegetables to a handful of local businesses who resell our products.
The history of the farm has been a slow progression. We started off with the help of a great mentor or two who were already farming. Reading farm books and watching educational videos helped immensely as well. We worked for others, grew in big back yards, and even helped run a small farmers market. Eventually we found our current location, which had been a farm before we came along. We are lucky to have the support of the landowners in our farm operations and we lease the property as an agricultural property.
Our farm’s marketing is word of mouth. We don’t participate in any social media; we have a website that allows people to sign up for our email list. We don’t find ourselves in need of many new customers these days, but we will forever be grateful for the new and returning customers from the farmers’ markets early in the life of the farm. We collected names and emails on a clipboard at market and that tremendously helped build our customer email list. When 2020 went wild and markets in New Mexico became severely limited, we had an influx of people who found our farm on the farmers’ market website or through their own search. At that point we pivoted the farm to focus on selling to our email list as a farm pick-up instead of attending the farmers’ market.
Our economic reality has been surprisingly stable compared to some of the stories of others. The beginning of any business is traditionally lean, money wise. However, with hard work and great customers, we have found a way to make a living, pay others well above minimum wage, provide ourselves with outstanding food, and keep our bodies in shape and healthy. The social capital that is built as a small-scale farmer matters, and we make enough money at this point to be confident that bills will get paid on time.
Our pricing is based on how much time our crops take to grow, harvest, wash, pack, and sell. We aim to be competitive with organic produce in Whole Foods, Natural Grocers, or the local La Montañita Co-op. We are lucky to live in the internet age and we can listen to or read about other farmers around the country and compare their pricing with our own.
I think any person who claims to be connected to the land needs to be respectful and discerning with their water use in the field. It takes a lot of water to grow anything. It is a desert farmer’s job to find ways of being efficient while ensuring the plants have what they need to thrive. Desert farming has its advantages—it is easier to add water than to take water away. We have mild winters, which allow us to grow through the winter when plants need less water. Hot summers mandate extra water, discerning crop choice, and constructed or planned shade. We have never depended on the acequia systems and have a reliable well for irrigation. As more farms come into existence, whether they be cannabis, hay, or produce, we all as a society need to find ways to help care for our planet and be respectful of our neighbors.
The joys of farming: A basic connection to the earth that is hard to find in a modern world. Providing organic food for ourselves in an amount that otherwise would be hard to purchase at our income level. Overseeing how our days are spent. Being responsible for fulfilling a basic and crucial need like good, clean food. Making a living by facilitating a natural process that is inherently full of integrity. Frustrations include: A lack of interest from others to grow food on their own. People thinking our prices are too high. Customers getting lost in the convenience of having someone else grow their food. Increasing government interference in how food is produced for the consumer. I see the future of farming moving back to the local/community level. Better to have hundreds of thousands of small-scale farms than just a few thousand mega-farms. I think the interest in how to “do farming better” is higher than it has ever been in my lifetime. The future is bright and ripe for farmers (with the help of the community) to solve some of these hard problems facing our planet.
Jodi Colchamiro and Valentin Garcia have a large garden in the backyard of their North Valley home. Jodi talked in a phone interview with mid Rio Grade Times about how their garden grew. Interview by Nancy Harmon
We moved to our present home in 1986 and were excited to plant a big garden. I took classes and learned about composting and healthy soil, and Valentin brought his expertise from growing up on a farm in Las Cruces. There were no trees in the back yard, so we planted fruit trees and tried gardening in the soil around them. As the trees grew and roots expanded into the yard, we realized the trees were competing for nutrients with the rest of the garden, so we moved the veggies into large pots and covered “urban gardens” (waist-high beds covered with plastic that allow some things to grow even through the winter). We can control water, pests, and nutrients better this way. Now we grow tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, herbs, and chili during the summer and continue with greens all winter. We never intended to make money from it—it’s all about the pleasure we get from watching things grow, eating healthy food ourselves, and sharing the bounty with friends and neighbors.
I love different varieties of chickens and the different colored eggs they produce—my favorites are the gentle cochins that are good brooders and moms and the aracaunas that lay green and blue eggs. Now with 80 chickens, I can put together colorful boxes of eggs to sell out of my house in the summer and sometimes at the Growers’ Market.
Gardening in New Mexico requires careful tending of the soil, the key to a successful garden. I keep an eye on alkalinity, and I make my own compost from manure from my chickens mixed with straw and garden and kitchen waste. Expired produce I pick up from La Montañita Co-op goes to the chickens. Even so, gardening can be expensive! We have water rights as part of the acequia system in the valley, and we use ditch water for the fruit trees and city water for the containers. As the drought and higher temperatures continue, I worry about our water and that more pests will overwinter. We may have to move to using only city water eventually, and the cost of city water may prevent us from gardening the way we do now. It will be tough to compete for water if corporate cannabis growers are allowed into New Mexico.
In spite of some challenges due to climate change, gardening remains our passion. Growth is a miracle, and everything from the garden tastes better.
Subscribe To Mid Rio Grande Times
Join our mailing list to receive our monthly newsletter.
Thanks - your signup is almost done. Check your email to confirm your signup.
It's free! Check your email to confirm your signup.