Taking a stand for New Mexico's small farmers

  • Edmund Gomez

    Lisa Jones

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, What does the West need to know?, in a special issue about the West's land grant universities and their extension programs.

Edmund Gomez worked for years on the Dulce, Colo., ranch his great-grandfather homesteaded in 1887. When his family sold the ranch in 1991, Gomez became the local extension agent. He left that two years ago when a position opened up that was closer to his heart - keeping northern New Mexico's small farmers on their land in the face of a flood of wealthy immigrants. Gomez directs the Rural Agriculture Improvement Project, a joint effort of New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service and the Kellogg Foundation.

"I work with the poorest of the poor. Nine of the 11 counties I work for are the poorest in the state, and New Mexico is 48th in the nation. We work exclusively with limited resource people, subsistence farmers. They might be working as a janitor at the high school and have a subsistence farm.

"You've got people here making twelve, thirteen, fourteen thousand dollars a year. And someone offers them $25,000 for their acre of land. What are you going to do? Then again, how long is that going to last, and what are you going to give your kids?

"You know what really screwed us up here? World War II and Los Alamos. Los Alamos hired a lot of local people, got them off the farm ... I used to ask my grandpa, "What happened to all these abandoned houses?" Now there's military cutbacks. Los Alamos has lost about 500 jobs. (Scientists) can go back into private industry. But what about all the support staff?

"What we're after is having (small landowners) plan for the future. So that people start thinking, "I've really got to manage my operation if I'm going to survive. Will my grandson be able to do this the way I'm doing it?"

"We're teaching people to be better managers. People are interested in growing organic grains to supply the chicken farm in Taos. A single mother was making tamales and selling them in Taos and Costilla. We found her and said, "If you want to expand this and do it right, we'll help you." We've had a very successful project from women in Mora County to raise cold crops and flowers. We're supplying seed, transplants and technical expertise.

"People think sustainable agriculture is organic farming - no! We're encouraging artificial insemination. You may ask, what's sustainable about that? You're bringing in genetics as quickly and economically as possible. Say I'm a small livestock producer and I've got 20 to 30 head and I want better genetics and I can't afford a bull - bulls depreciate, they die on you. Artificial insemination is cost-effective. Next spring I'm having our third artificial-insemination school. In the fall, we had our second pregnancy-testing school. The classes always fill up. We're planning a range school for small ranchers. They have 5, 15, at the most 50 head.

"The extension system service is a life support system. If something happened to the extension service, what is going to happen to the people?"

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