Just outside the frontier community of Deming, NM, Francisco and Lisa show me their chile crops when Francisco explained the miracle of crop rotations, how is able to increase his yields every year with no outside inputs to his fields, just chicken manure, compost and a clever rotation schedule.
“It costs me nothing to fertilize, and I have less problems than any of my neighbors and my soil gets better every year”. Francisco added while wading through the waste high plants.
Francisco and his wife Lisa have been farming on their property for over 5 years, adding new beds, trellises and trying new crops every year and having fun while doing it. As they are showing me around and explaining the contents of their many different beds Lisa almost seems surprised, “We didn’t plan for any of this, we just kept putting in beds because we wanted more food for ourselves.”
They started their farm- Eden’s Gardens when they started experiencing some health issues, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and fatigue. The doctor recommended they eat more fresh whole foods and they found it difficult to find good produce at the local grocery store, a common frontier experience.
Thankfully Francisco grew up in a small farming community in northern Mexico and had the knowledge of how to work with the rich desert soils ingrained in his memory. A few days later he dug up a small plot right behind their house and planted some squash, tomatoes, peppers and a few different kinds of greens.
“Once I started the garden, I realized how much joy it brought me” Francisco said, “Pretty soon all I wanted to do was work the soil, weed and take care of the plants. I wasn’t focused on the output, it almost surprised me when I realized I had to start harvesting!”
It didn’t take long before they had more produce than they could eat and they started bringing it to nearby friends and family but even the most grateful family member had to occasionally decline the bulging bags of zucchini, tomatoes, nopales (cactus), garlic and whatever else they had harvested that week.
Just down the road, Lisa’s brother runs a successful greenhouse business and suggested they travel to the Las Cruces market on Saturday and sell the excess there.
“We sold out in about a half hour” Lisa says with a smile “And we made a bunch of new friends”.
The next week they harvested everything they could and again sold out within an hour. The couple was blown away by the support for their food and the willingness of the customers to pay a premium price for the product.
“Its our favorite thing to do, its our main social event of the week and we always come home with more food as gifts or that we trade for”. Francisco says.
After a few markets they began planning for the next season. With the amount of interest at the market and the support of a few grocery store managers they felt comfortable enough to sell everything they could grow, and they were right.
In addition to the burgeoning local business and new found friends Francisco and Lisa met through the market their health scares have disappeared thanks to the activity required by gardening, a healthy diet and an optimistic outlook.
Indeed, they are an energetic and vital pair. Recently their melons have been popping up around the region at grocery stores and customers ask for them by name.
“They are probably the best melons we have ever had” Says Jake L, the produce manager at a local grocery store referring to the boxes of perfectly ripe, sweet and juicy melons that usually sell out within a day or two.
Francisco says“When you are centered around food there is always a lot of exercise, sunshine and friends”
“And laughter” Lisa added.
Stories like this and the supporting data we uncovered in our 2015 Food Hub Feasibility Study and our Health Impact Assessment from the same year are the reason NCFC is undergoing two huge projects to revitalize the local food economy in the frontier and to build an emergency food system that makes sense for small, remote communities.
“We see food as a nexus between community, health and economic development for the frontier” says Ben Rasmussen, NCFC Program Specialist “It brings people together, helps get you healthy and has immense potential to create jobs and additional income in the communities we work with”. Rasmussen added.
When you drive around southwest New Mexico you see rangeland, orchards and vast fields filled with chiles, corn, cotton and beans- but the grocery store shelves are often devoid of fresh produce, especially outside of the population centers.
Added to this, the amount of farmers growing food products destined for local markets has dwindled in recent years.
Page Latham, an organic chile grower and third generation farmer in the region talks about how her childhood memories are filled with food.
“All of the big farmers would also grow food for the restaurants or grocery stores and just about everyone had a garden- but that’s changed.” Latham said.
Those receiving food from the food pantry system experience higher rates of diet related illnesses such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease, and the foods currently distribute by food pantries often compound the problem.
During the HIA, NCFC staff talked with a 45 year old man who has extremely high blood pressure due to a hereditary condition. His doctor told him not to work anymore and limit his sodium intake and soon after he found himself at the food pantry. His first distribution was beef jerky for protein, canned chili, canned vegetables and a few frozen pizzas.
“He couldn’t afford other foods because he lost his job so he literally had to choose between eating something that would make his health worse or going hungry”. Rasmussen said.
These kinds of decisions are unacceptable. NCFC believes the food pantry system can be a place where any individual or household in need can get enough healthy food to eat.
“I think that if people didn’t have to worry about getting enough food then they could focus on other things that might make their situation and their health better. It truly is a cycle and if we can provide a way to break that cycle I think outcomes could greatly improve.” Rasmussen said.
Additionally, local farmers have difficulty accessing markets to sell their food products. While there are interested markets within Southwest New Mexico, they cant buy large volumes so gaining access to markets in nearby metro areas is important- but they can be costly to reach.
“A good solution to the issues with frontier food systems is to develop a dual-purpose food hub that can aggregate and distribute local produce to markets and that can glean, order and distribute foods to food pantries” Rasmussen said.
In addition to selling and distributing food, the hub would also focus on developing capacity for local farmers and coordinating wrap around services at food pantries to address the root causes of hunger.
Most “solutions” come from Washington DC or some other big city. And they are designed greatly for urban areas to address urban issues, but the types of issues faced on the frontier are different in nature and solutions must be carried out with that in mind.
Currently NCFC has just finished a full year of building capacity in local food pantries and promoting local food around the region. Both projects have been successful and NCFC is currently weighing different funding options to continue and expand the work.
“It has taken a lot of work to get to this point, a lot of research, meetings and crunching data” Rasmussen said “But it feels like we are just getting started.”