By Elizabeth Miller
Bueno Para Todos, a small farm in Villanueva, NM, began 2020 with a hoop house and four planted areas enclosed in wooden frames raised above the ground. A few chokecherry and apricot trees planted years ago had taken root along the sun-soaked valley floor.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, throwing people out of work and wiping grocery store shelves bare.
Six months later, the pandemic’s imprint on the small farm in the Pecos river valley of central New México is easy to see.
Twelve raised planting beds and three-quarters of an acre of newly planted plum, cherry, nectarine, and apricot trees grow alongside a waffle garden, a Zuni farming technique, of corn, beans, squash, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, and herb.
A rain catchment and drip irrigation system is coming soon.
COVID-19 has turned the world upside down, but one overlooked positive might be a rise in interest in gardening and local farms becoming a source for helping to feed a growing population of New Mexicans whose next meal is not guaranteed. Emergency grant money has flowed to small farms like Bueno Para Todos, and other projects, helping them grow as they respond to a crisis of unemployment and food shortages.
Accompanying the growth in farm production is a newfound curiosity among New Mexicans about food and where it comes from, and a desire not to be caught by surprise again. Would-be gardeners are clamoring to win free backyard gardening kits. Plant seedling sales soared. Organizations and government agencies are connecting farmers with people in need, and making high-quality food, like fresh fruits and vegetables more affordable, or even free.
“In places where people have been really divided, food becomes this beautiful bridge, and there’s so much magic in that, so much healing in that. Who knew a cucumber or a carrot could help with that?”
Yvonne Sandoval, Bueno Para Todos
“People, with good reason, got freaked out seeing grocery store shelves empty, and the supply chains were just so disrupted that even the food banks had some funny weeks — like, ‘All we have are these three things, because this truck didn’t come,’” Juliana Ciano, program director at Reunity Resources, a community farm and composting center in Santa Fe, said. “It resolved quickly, but it’s very alarming to see how many steps it takes to get the food from here to there, and it really inspired a lot of people to commit to their local farms.”
At Bueno Para Todos, people can pick what they want and pay what they can, with either money or by helping tend the farm. The farm’s offerings this year would supplement a family’s needs, but the farm’s co-founder, Yvonne Sandoval, hopes to someday feed multiple families, maybe as many as 100. Small grants from the Santa Fe Community Foundation and NewMexicoWomen.org allowed for speeding through two years of work this summer, she added: “For other organizations, it’s chump change, but for us, because we’re a volunteer organization living in a rural community, that $1,000 goes a long way.”
Before the pandemic, many families in New México were struggling to put enough food on the table.
“The reality is, the system wasn’t working for so many people,” Sandoval said. “So many people have been on the edge for so long.”
Local food boost
The pandemic hit early enough in the spring for farmers to invest upfront on the wager that even as demand dropped from restaurants and other traditional customers more New Mexicans would need the food, already did need that food, said Ciano.
They were right.
The New México Farmers Marketing Association works with the state to “double up” the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps. If spent on New México-grown produce or plant starts, the state picks up half the bill, so a $20 bag of vegetables costs a SNAP user just $10.
After the state increased SNAP benefits and made it easier to apply for them, spending through that program roughly doubled, said Sarah Grant, co-founder of the New México Farmers Marketing Association.
The farmers marketing association raised $400,000 to get food from local farms to families and support local farmers. The money was divvied up between roughly 70 farmers, who received up to $1,000 each to purchase personal protective gear, or build a hoop house or a stand to sell food to nearby residents, and about 50 groups, including Santa Fe-based Reunity Resources, the Santa Fe Indian School, the San Ildefonso Pueblo, and Seeded Sisters in Jemez Pueblo. The groups distributed produce to new parents or to families with school children now missing out on free meals from schools. They also delivered food boxes to pueblos closed because of the pandemic.
“The Farmers Marketing Association is trying to publicize what has happened, so hopefully, people will go, ‘Oh wow, that was really important, we’ve got to see if we can make that happen again,’” Grant said.
Reunity Resources used its share of the money from the farmers association and other funding to purchase early-season produce, bulk goods through restaurant distributors, and pay for employee time to prepare and freeze meals in then-closed restaurant kitchens. Communities in Schools of New Mexico, the local branch of a national nonprofit that provides services for students, then found 300 families to receive four pre-made frozen meals distributed each week for the first three months of the pandemic.
“They were delivering food and hygiene supplies to these families already and we were just able to add on the idea of having a strong immune system, and eating well in the face of a public health crisis is super important,” said Ciano.
The approach worked particularly well with early-season produce, which can often stump home cooks, Ciano said, — “So knowing something was tasty, and it already has spinach and chard and beets cut up and roasted in it, so it’s not, ‘What is this? This is a job for me.’”
When summer produce came into season and restaurants reopened, Reunity worked with other farms to fill vegetables food boxes distributed by other organizations, often packed with staples from The Food Depot, northern New México’s food bank. Those boxes went to more than 300 families each week.
Government agencies stepped up too, directly purchasing and distributing food from farmers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture purchased up to $4 billion across the nation in fresh produce, dairy products, and meat that was then boxed and delivered to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and nonprofits. The New México Department of Agriculture pooled contact information for farmers and ranchers so people looking for locally produced food could easily find them, and helped farmers adjust from bulk distribution to packaging for a family of four. They were also able to identify when closed tribal communities were cut off from grocery stores, and almost overnight assembled a truckload of food to distribute at five locations in the Navajo Nation and at pueblos.
“There’s a lot of different efforts going on that aren’t necessarily official programs,” said Kristy García, director of public affairs for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. “A lot of people came together to help get food to food insecure people in the pandemic, and quickly. It wasn’t ‘How can we do this next month?’ It was, ‘How can we do this tomorrow — have food in their pantries and on their tables tomorrow?’”
But it wasn’t just government agencies, SNAP dollars and nonprofit groups spurring more local food in New México kitchens.
Farmers every year sell seedlings to boost their early season income. Ric Gaudet, who runs One Straw Farm on six acres near Velarde, said he sold a bumper crop of them this year. Buyers expressed concerns about an economic or food system collapse. The attitude, he recalled, was, “Our world may be falling apart, so we need to start growing our own food, and also we’ve got a lot of spare time on our hands, so let’s plant a garden.”
He estimated they sold tens of thousands of seedlings of about 30 different vegetable types, including tomatoes, sweet peppers, chiles, squash, cucumbers, eggplants, greens, cabbage, bok choy, and herbs.
“From a flat of vegetable starts, you can have a fair amount of your fresh produce,” Gaudet said. “I’m not sure if you encourage everybody to grow their own vegetable gardens, that’s going to solve food insecurity, but it’s one small piece of the puzzle.”
Food is Free Albuquerque is known for “gleaning” excess produce and fruit from trees and gardens of area residents and donating to food banks and kitchens, but this spring they became known for something else. They assembled about 100 raised bed gardening kits that included soil and seeds, and about 10,000 people signed up for a lottery to win one, said Erin Garrison, executive director. They went on to distribute thousands of seeds and about 10,000 plants this year, including close to 7,000 tomato plants.
“If you figure each tomato plant has the potential to yield 10 pounds of fruit, that’s the potential for 70,000 pounds of food put out into the community,” Garrison said.
Time, space and water
The food system is like the power grid. People get electricity from large, distant power plants delivered over transmission lines that traverse regional landscapes. Most food comes from far-away, large farms delivered via ship, train and truck.
Some argue a more sustainable and efficient approach to generating electricity for homes would be through small-scale systems close to where power is used, avoiding transmission loss and detrimental environmental effects of large-scale energy projects.
Similarly, when it comes to food, fresher and healthier choices would come from smaller scale production closer to home. The shift would decrease the use of fossil fuels, cut pesticide use, grow food in ways that can absorb harmful greenhouse gases, and potentially pay farm workers a living wage, contends Denise Miller, executive director of the Farmers Marketing Association.
But feeding New Mexicans entirely with local food, or even filling its hunger gap, would require overcoming big barriers.
Such a shift would require more people in every community to plant their own garden or farm, and not everyone wants to or has the time to be so directly involved. Much easier to flip on a light switch and not think about it; so, too, is it easier to simply browse the grocery aisles, fill a cart, and take it home.
“If you take on this work, that means you have to be rooted in the work,” said Sandoval, in Villanueva, who also works a full-time job as a therapist. “And I haven’t been rooted in this work until COVID. I’ve been driving 12 to 16 hours a week, participating in my art collective and having offices in Las Vegas and Albuquerque. … Now, I’m allowed to be home and to really be in relationship with the land.”
Other factors constrain a local food system from fully providing enough food.
People who want to farm don’t always have land, and people who have land don’t always want to be farmers or raise their kids to be, as the average national age of farmers — 57 — suggests. And in New México, limited water constrains how much produce can be grown in-state, no matter how motivated a community might be.
There are also vagaries inherent in growing plants: weather, insects, disease outbreaks, foraging animals. Nothing, from whether seeds sprout to the number of tomatoes a plant produces, is a guarantee. Some gardeners find it makes more financial sense to buy from local farmers, who have economies of scale working in their favor.
But those who have invested in farms say there are other benefits. Time spent growing builds appreciation and understanding for food and empathy for those who tend farms, Grant said: “If everybody would grow their food — even if one in five people were growing their own food, we would be living in a different world.”
Sandoval pointed to the resilience of a local food system: Some elders who lived in Villanueva through the Great Depression told her they didn’t even notice it, they just kept trading goods amongst themselves.
Reviving that practice, as well as ancestral farming techniques suited to the arid landscapes of New México, reclaims some of what was lost to colonialism. And there’s a mental health benefit and a sense of community built from time spent outdoors.
“In places where people have been really divided, food becomes this beautiful bridge, and there’s so much magic in that, so much healing in that,” Sandoval said. “Who knew a cucumber or a carrot could help with that?”
Elizabeth Miller is an independent journalist based in Santa Fe, New México. This story was originally published by New Mexico In Depth.
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