Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Helping the little guy

Ten years into the future, C.E. Pugh wonders if small farmers and ranchers in the state – and the sense of community they bring – will be around.

Their chances are slim, says the general manager of La Montañita Co-op, if they don’t find customers to buy their goods for a good price.

“Local producers, many of them . . . the economies of scale work against them,” he says. “If some of them are having difficulty in their business, then might we find a way to assist them, to provide greater value to them so 10 years from now they’re still there?”

With rising gas prices inflating the cost of an industrial food system that typically shuttles food 1,500 miles before reaching millions of hungry Americans, the co-op’s short answer was yes.

The long answer? One truck, two drivers, a warehouse, hundreds of miles and a vision.

In June, the Albuquerque co-op, along with Beneficial Farm and Ranch Collaborative in Santa Fe, began an experimental service that would give small local producers – including farmers, ranchers and others – more affordable and convenient access to markets for their goods.

Pugh explains how it works: Instead of many different farmers individually spending time and money on driving their goods to market, La Montañita’s truck makes a weekly pick-up at their operations.

The farmers – within a 300- to 500-mile radius of the Duke City – sell to the co-op, and the co-op sells to stores in population centers. It’s a way to create economies of scale by gathering and transporting larger quantities of goods for less.

It’s something small farmers need, he says, because big distributors can’t make money off small quantities of goods.

“We’re looking to partner with others to really try to build a sustainable food shed here in the Southwest,” he says, noting the program’s evaluation period would wrap up the end of October. “We believe that we could begin to make a meaningful difference here over the next 10 to 20 years.”

It’s an operation meant to break even, he says, though it will lose money as it ramps up.

So far, about 20 farmers, including one dairy farmer, are on board. One of them is Luz Hernandez.

The 43-year-old New Mexico native grows tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, carrots and more on her Gard-n-hers Farm just outside Las Cruces.

“It’s certainly helping us out,” Hernandez says. “I will definitely be using it a lot more and my future plans of growing more crops will certainly have them in mind for being able to sell to.”

She says more of her business goes to a farmers market in Las Cruces, but the service from La Montañita is a valuable component.

“Why I jumped on board and why I’m so excited about the program is because they’re really out for the small farmers, such as myself,” she says. “It’s important because I think farming itself is fading away.”

The service has connected farmers with stores selling organic goods, such as Whole Foods in Albuquerque and Cid’s Food Market in Taos.

Another buyer is Los Poblanos Organics, a farm in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque. Its members pay up front to receive a weekly basket filled with food from its farm and others in and out of state.

Owner and founder Monte Skarsgard says being a small operation poses challenges when it comes to working with low-volume farmers.

“The distribution method is the biggest question,” he says. “It’s not really a matter of desire or quantity, it’s just a matter of how do we get it from point A to point B if they’re small-time and we’re small-time.”

La Montañita’s service helps answer that question and has found him five local growers. He says more are likely in the future – especially if an expansion comes.

“Hopefully, the thing should be taking off, and if they’re looking at really getting into New Mexico meats . . . we would look at changing the scope of our offerings” to include meat, he says.

“It’s a great service. Hopefully, there’s enough support there.”

Pugh is optimistic the program will take off, but it won’t be easy.

He expects to run it at a loss the first couple of years. Key to making it pay for itself is increasing the volume of goods that are gathered.

“We need to pick up a little from a lot of people in the same area . . . and that helps make the economics work,” he says. “The big piece of this is we want to create more local producers, more local production, and that’s going to really help drive the volume.”

Demand justifies the effort, he points out.

In the past four annual surveys given to La Montañita Co-op members, providing local goods and helping local farmers consistently ranked as highly valuable, he says.

Already, the co-op works with 400 local producers of goods. It stocks more than 1,000 locally produced items which, in 2003, made up 16 percent of sales and today make up more than 20 percent.

“We have a concern here at La Montañita among our members and among our staff . . . that our current food system – the industrialized food system – is probably not the way we would prefer to do things if we had a choice,” he says. “It is a food system that has ben built upon cheap fuel.

“It’s obvious that (local food) is going to be more meaningful for some of us than others,” he says. “For some people it’s just lunch. To others it’s really more meaningful. It’s the land upon which we live.”

SIDEBAR: ORGANIC BOOM

With Los Poblanos Organics’ growing membership, the 12-acre farm and organization that connects organic farmers with consumers moved its store – where members come to pick up baskets of fruits and vegetables they buy in advance – to 2000 Carlisle Blvd. N.E. this summer.

“The space we opened up a year ago was too big for what we had at the time,” said founder, owner and farmer Monte Skarsgard. “This thing kind of developed pretty quickly.”

Toward the end of September, Los Poblanos Organics had 514 members, up 74.2 percent from the 295 members it had at the beginning of the year. In January 2004, it had 27 members.

“The organic thing seems to be a big thing now,” Skarsgard says. “I think people are just ready for good food or have been ready for it.”

Members of the farm community-supported agriculture program get weekly baskets that in the summer are mostly filled with locally produced, organic crops.

In other seasons, organic foods from out of state are added to meet members’ demand. More crops are also coming from farmers signed up with La Montañita Co-op’s new program to buy and truck in local produce.

“We’re seeing more people choose to get back into the field and start farming again,” Skarsgard says. “It’s nice to be able to support those people and buy produce from them.”

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