New Mexico Wheat Growers Join Forces to Grow, Market Premium Flower
|Growing organic, unusually tasty wheat raised in the mountains of northern New Mexico has been a profitable route to a better quality of life for a new farmers cooperative. |
Photo courtesy of USDA
In the arid mountains north of Taos, N.M., a group of residents struggling to stay on the land rather than move to Albuquerque for retail jobs heeded the advice of agricultural educators and began growing high-quality wheat. Its been years since the group decided to try farming, and their modest success is a testament to their hard work and never-say-die attitude.
Today, the Sangre de Cristo Cooperative sells about 400,000 pounds of flour to bakeries, restaurants and groceries. Their product, raised organically, has been hailed as unusually tasty and thus brings a high price in the upscale markets of Taos and Sante Fe.
Its quality stuff a better product than what you can get elsewhere, said Craig Mapel, a marketing specialist with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, one of the founders of the co-op project.The flour performs wonderfully.
It was Mapel, in fact, who went with county extension agent Rey Torres to visit northern New Mexico landowners in 1994 to propose a new crop for what had become one of the poorest communities in the country. A generation earlier, the people of the area farmed, but mining and tourism jobs lured many to the big cities. In their wake: impoverished communities with few economic prospects. Those who remained in farming contended with cycles of drought, little access to equipment and low commodity prices in the marketplace. Most had 10 acres or fewer.
Mapels part of the project, funded by a SARE grant, focused on improving the incomes of families most of them Latino or Native American through good farming practices and savvy marketing.
They said they had land and water and they didnt want a minimum wage job in Albuquerque, Mapel recalled. They asked if we could help them stay on their land.
With guidance from the state Department of Agriculture, New Mexico Extension specialists and community development leaders, a group began small-scale farming in an area whose altitude seems ideally suited to producing premium wheat. About half a dozen Extension-led workshops held in the region educated the group of 30 farmers about the ins and outs of raising wheat.
Basically, we started from zero, Mapel said. Most of them didnt have a tractor.
Mapel helped them apply for grants, which enabled the co-op to form and buy equipment. They identified a mill in Texas to convert their raw product to flour and package it in five-, 25- and 50-pound bags. In 1995, the new growers harvested their wheat, milled it collectively and co-marketed their product under their new label, Nativo flour. When they found a dedicated customer the owner of a Santa Fe bakery the co-op took off.
Today, dozens of groceries and markets, a pizza chain and several coffee shops buy Nativo flour. The group hopes to purchase its own mill, using grant assistance, in the area. Not only would it save the long trip to Texas for processing, but building a mill also would bring job opportunities that could spread more income throughout the local economy.
Their main limitation has been something beyond their control: water.
Nobody has ever seen it this dry, except maybe in 1950, said Lonnie Roybal, a Costilla wheat and alfalfa grower and tireless marketer of flour. This year, he is peddling flour from last years harvest, and hopes it snows enough next winter to recharge the water supply for next springs planting.
Roybal, who received his own SARE grant to explore irrigation methods, continues to appreciate the assistance that launched the project, attributing much of the credit to Mapel. Craig has been there for us since the beginning, he said. Today, people really like the flour. We have a good product.
Hispanic or Native American descendants in northern New Mexico
|Educating Team |
New Mexico Department of Agriculture
NMSU Extension Service
|Challenges Addressed |
Little access to capital or equipment
Small land holdings
|Connection Strategies |
Prospect of grant funding
Promise of profits
|Teaching Methods |
Intensive, on-farm production workshops