Training programs teach farmers to do more with less

Can blackberries and tilapia help New Mexico’s small farmers thrive?


When Adam Cohen landed in New Mexico a year ago to teach greenhouse management and aquaponics at Santa Fe Community College, he was horrified to find out that only three percent of the food grown in the state was sold here. New Mexico, he learned, has one of the country’s worst food security and access rates.

But Cohen also saw opportunity in those dismal statistics. "We really want to find a way to marry economic development and job creation to helping everyone access the healthy food they need," he said during a recent tour of the college's greenhouse, a geodesic dome filled with thriving herbs, spinach and fish.

Adam Cohen, lead faculty at the Santa Fe Community College's greenhouse, inspects a tilapia, the fish whose waste nourishes crops in the greenhouse's aquaponics program.
Luis Sanchez Saturno/Santa Fe New Mexican.

Cohen is among a group of agriculture producers who think new low-cost growing techniques, high-value crops and an increased interest in local produce offer solutions to New Mexico’s food struggles.

In 2013, more than one-fourth of children in New Mexico didn’t always have enough to eat, according to the nonprofit Voices for Children. Around 75 percent of people served by food banks in New Mexico reported buying less healthy food to stretch their limited budgets.

As of July, New Mexico also had the second highest unemployment rate in the nation. One of every five New Mexicans lived below the poverty level, according to the state labor department.

Despite these shortcomings, the state is rich in land and agricultural tradition.

Long-time Northern New Mexico farmer Don Bustos is among the growers who have fostered those traditions, even as he’s adopted new crops and techniques to make his family business viable. Now he teaches farming and business methods to other young farmers. Like Cohen, he's willing to learn and experiment, and sees innovation as the future of family farms and rural communities. All it takes is an open mind — and a lot of hard work.

Nery Martinez (foreground), Don Bustos' nephew, is among the young farmers learning new growing techniques from Bustos.
Clyde Mueller/Santa Fe New Mexican

Modeling a farm business

On an August morning on the three-and-a-half-acre Santa Cruz Farm, just outside of Española, Bustos and his nephew Nery Martinez moved among vines loaded with ripe blackberries. They filled baskets and put them under the shade until the succulent fruits could be readied for a trip to the Saturday farmers market in Santa Fe. Nearby stood three large greenhouses where Bustos grows lettuce, spinach and other produce in the fall and winter for local schools.

The two men paused briefly to pop berries into their mouths. “We graze all day,” Bustos, 60, said with a chuckle.

Bustos said small-scale agriculture fits him. “It doesn’t feel like work and I can make enough to pay the bills. I make enough to travel, hang out with good people,” Bustos said. “So I’m really fortunate. It’s not a job. It’s a calling.”

He’s not alone: The number of farms in New Mexico that sold at least $1,000 in a year increased by 7,000 between 2005 and 2014, according to the National Agriculture Statistic Service. “New Mexico is a true small-farm state,” said Jeff Witte, director of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.

Bustos has proven that small farms can be viable. "It's sweat equity," he said. "The more you put in, the more you get out of it."

Being visionary helps, too. Bustos was among the early New Mexico farmers to support a state organic certification program, and he advocated hard for a covered pavilion at Santa Fe’s downtown railyard to create a year-round Santa Fe Farmer’s Market. He worked with the New Mexico State University Sustainable Agriculture Center to try new crops like blackberries, and figured out how to grow in greenhouses so he could produce crops all winter.

Greenhouses, inexpensive hoop houses, and other burgeoning methods of organic production are helping people like Bustos produce a lot of food on small plots of land without a big investment. “They’re figuring out you don’t need 1,000 acres or even 100 acres,” Witte said. “You can do something pretty substantive on five acres.”

Experienced farmers like Bustos are also helping the next generation of growers succeed. About 14 years ago, Bustos launched a Farmer-to-Farmer program through the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Prospective farmers learn everything from business planning to soil fertility. If they stay committed to farming, they go on to become trainers themselves.

“The idea was to teach people how to farm, how to pay their bills, how to feed their families and support their communities," said Bustos, who in 2015 won the James Beard Foundation leadership award.  "At the same time, we’re protecting our land and our water for future generations.”

Bustos estimated he trained 75 farmers in New Mexico over the years, and another 200 farmers across the country.

His trainees have since developed their own innovations. Among Bustos’ mentees is Joseph Alfaro, manager of Valle Encantado Farm, a scattered bunch of once-abandoned land parcels in the South Valley now producing vegetables. The 37-year-old former butcher and landscaper said Bustos’ training program taught him techniques from building better soil to constructing cold frames. Alfaro later helped form the Agri-Cultura Network, a group of 13 farmers that aggregates their harvests to supply customers at farmers markets, grocery stores, and Albuquerque’s public schools. “We’re growing food, growing farmers and growing community,” said Alfaro.

Another one of Bustos’ trainees is Joseluis Ortiz, ag program and youth corps director for La Plazita Institute in the South Valley.

Bustos’ training in 2012 “revolutionized my way of thinking about farming,” Ortiz said. He learned how to become certified organic, how to use drip irrigation and how to create a good business plan. Now the farm he runs for La Plazita helps teach troubled youth job skills and brings in money for the group’s social programs, such as leadership, peer mentoring and gang intervention. “We’ve been able to keep programs going and hire people and create new programs,” Ortiz said.

Don Bustos has trained hundreds of farmers nationwide in business planning and innovative growing techniques.
Clyde Mueller/Santa Fe New Mexican

A no-waste system

Despite his years of agricultural experience, Bustos is still learning. One of the programs he plans to visit is Adam Cohen's greenhouse, an hour's drive away at Santa Fe Community College.  

 During a recent tour, Cohen scooped a tilapia out of a tank within the dome, the fish’s sides glistening as it flopped in the net.

“Tilapia is not a good fish commercially at $2 per pound retail,” said Cohen. “But it is great for families to raise. They’re hardy and they grow fast. For a backyard grower, tilapia is an absolutely ideal fish.”

The tank is one of two in the greenhouse. The other contains the finicky but more valuable barramundi, or Asian sea bass. Water in both tanks, complete with nourishing fish waste, is pumped over to floating racks filled with fragrant summer herbs— rosemary, dill, basil, parsley and oregano — that will be dried for the college’s cafe and culinary program. In the fall and winter the system grows lettuce, bok choy, onions and more. The plants thrive on the nutrient-rich liquid and clean the water, which is then recirculated back to the fish tanks. This aquaponics system is one of several projects students in Cohen’s greenhouse management program learn to design, build and operate.

“There’s not a plant yet that I’ve seen that won’t grow in this,” Cohen said. “I have friends in Australia growing citrus trees, papaya and mango with aquaponics. I have a friend in Florida growing guasave.”

The greenhouse management program launched in 2012 with 12 students. Two dozen students will start the one-year certificate program in the fall, and Cohen thinks at least that number will start in a spring cohort. The college has added another instructor to help Cohen with the expanding program.

Cohen’s techniques make sense on a number of levels. First, producing crops in greenhouses extends the growing season, helping farmers sustain a business through the year. Hydroponics systems that use recirculating water to grow plants makes sense in a thirsty state like New Mexico. Aquaponics adds the ability to grow fish and reuse their nutrient-rich waste.

“Commercially we use very little water and there’s absolutely no waste,” Cohen said. “In a 1,200 gallon system, we use about 100 gallons of fresh water a week, the amount absorbed by the plants. In a water poor area, whether Santa Fe, New Mexico or Dubai, we use very little water and can produce a huge amount of food.”

The potential niche businesses are many, said Cohen. Chefs need fresh herbs, but herbs don’t travel well. A local herb grower using a greenhouse and aquaponics or hydroponics can provide fresh herbs year-round. Restaurants also need fresh greens daily, another prime greenhouse crop. Other potential ventures include herbal medicines and ornamental plants.

And hydroponics isn’t just for commercial growers. Cohen has also developed a two-foot-by-four-foot framed box with a tray that can grow enough lettuce, herbs and other greens to feed a small family. A manual explaining how to build one will soon be available on the college website.

“Although the greenhouse and aquaponics program is really set up to give someone the knowledge base to go out and start their own farm as a business, we also want to be sure everybody has access to fresh, healthy food,” said Cohen.

But that knowledge isn’t easy to come by. Greenhouse production is catching on faster than companies can find trained workers, said Charlie Shultz, the new greenhouse manager hired to help Cohen. “One of the bottlenecks in the industry is not enough trained employees., especially in aquaponics where you are marrying fish production to plants. Very few people have the wet thumb and the green thumb.”

Shultz and Cohen envision New Mexico farmers or landowners hiring their students to open and manage greenhouses on their ranches and farms. “Our graduates get a job and the farmer gets another source of revenue,” said Cohen. “It’s a win-win.”

Economic promise

In New Mexico, a state that depends economically on boom-and-bust industries such as oil, gas and mining, agriculture is constant. “Agriculture has always been a stabilizing influence on any economy,” Witte said.

New Mexico was hard hit by the dip in oil and gas prices in the last year, with state lawmakers now scrambling to make up an estimated $654 million shortfall.

Nancy Martinez picks fresh organic black raspberries at the Santa Cruz Farm for sale at the local farmer's market.
Clyde Mueller/Santa Fe New Mexican

While agriculture alone can't alone stitch up the massive hole in the state's pocket, the industry’s revenues have been increasing. The promise is immense, say advocates.

Whether New Mexico’s promising agricultural present translates into a prosperous future depends partly on existing farmers’ willingness to innovate — and the desire of new farmers to join the industry.

The rigors and financial challenges of farming, however, prevent many potentially productive acres from being fully utilized. “A lot of producers have small pieces of land that aren't in production at all,” cautioned Del Jimenez of the Sustainable Agriculture Center in Alcalde.

Over the years, Jimenez has helped construct about 1,400 low-cost hoop houses — a kind of greenhouse — in New Mexico. “I'm sorry to say, about 50 percent of them aren't used to their capacity because people have to work too hard,” he said.

Still, he said, “there is no other industry that gives you the opportunity to plant something in the ground and in two or three months you have a return on your investment, You don't have to be rich to start this business. You just have to be motivated.”

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.

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