Tuesday, April 16, 2013

SARE conference workshops: low-cost sustainable farming

Don Bustos, Santa Cruz Farm
president, Western SARE
(505) 514-1662

In the afternoon of the pre-conference workshop day, March 12, Don Bustos & Camille Trujillo of Santa Cruz Farm started out their talk with a round of introductions to get a sense of who was there and what their interests were. The results were interesting: people had come from all over the state, (including a couple of kids with their own agricultural ambitions) and ranged from students from the UAF Office of Sustainability, to farmers, to gardeners gone wild, to CES and other agency, business, and nonprofit representatives. People's interests included farming, strong communities, sustainability, self reliance, food cooperatives, community gardening, soil & water conservation, economic development, biodiversity preservation and sharing, restorative agriculture, and more.

Bustos started out by describing how, when they first took off in New Mexico, their plane lost an engine, so they had to turn around and land. After the adrenaline settled down they decided they would go ahead and continue anyway, although they'd lost a day off their time in Alaska—but they really wanted to come north, and it was worth it. (And no more engine trouble!)

Santa Cruz Farm is at 5,800 foot elevation, with solar energy as the only power source. It's near Esposito, with the farm in the same family for 32 generations. It is a vegan farm, meaning there are no animal inputs to the soil (no animal manures or meals as fertilizers), and it is about 80 miles from nearest farm using RoundUp-using farms or other GMO farms. It is an AFSC Certified Organic farm, certified through the New Mexico Dept. of Agriculture, USDA. It is also regularly inspected by the Sante Fe Farmers' Market. These inspections are worth it, Bustos assured his audience, when it comes to getting funding later for projects, or for marketing your products. The farm works with the American Friends Service Committee, the Farmer-to-Farmer Training Program.

New Mexico and Water
To understand the way Bustos currently operates his farm, he explained that a bit of historical background about New Mexico was in order. Water is historically very important, and modern times are no exception. The acequia, or water conduits, are a network of community-operated water chutes that, Bustos said, were the first form of democracy in North America. The acequias were first established in the late 1600s, and predate the solidification of Western water law's prioritization of water use (the "Doctrine of Prior Appropriation"). This means that instead of water being seen as an individually owned commodity, the community also has shared rights and responsibilities to manage, use, and protect the water. Commissionados act as mediators, with area farms having a "one farmer, one vote," system.

In about 1700 the Espanola Valley's acequia system was dug with a land grant established from Spain. In 1846 the US came in and the land grant system taken over. Now the acequia system land is slowly being taken back, purchased piece by piece. A requirement of the process is that the land must be used for food, and the acequias reestablished.

Northern New Mexico has strong community and long tradition of protection of water. However, urban areas have political clout, and the commodification of water is becoming a strong force in water politics.

Operating the Farm
Santa Cruz Farm uses a water catchment pond for its winter crops (the acequia are closed off now during winter months, and the area is in drought); about 8 to 10 feet deep. There is also a well, but it has dried out (the water table has dropped 60-80 feet in the last 30 years or so); they redug it once.

The farm gets its seeds from various companies: Peaceful Valley, High Mowing, etc., and chooses what to grow based on cooperative marketing ideas for value added and high value crops, planning ahead by several years to get a good return. Don Bustos cultivates only about 3.5 acres of his farmland; he found out he could make more money that way, rather than farming 100 acres, as he used to, by a careful choice of crop and planning ahead for his marketing. More acreage, despite more crops, actually cost more: there was better profit on a smaller farm. The most profitable and least stressful was at the three-acre level they have now, he said, and staff included only one and a half-time plus a few seasonal workers. An interesting sidenote that Bustos offered: a row that is too long has a psychological effect: "if it's 80-100 feet it's okay, but 120 feet or longer makes me and the people working for me tired," so he found he had more productive workers with shorter rows.

Some of Bustos' income comes from tours: students: university students, rehabilitation/alternative sentencing, adults with disabilities, sustainable programs at various colleges, the school farm (Dragon Farm) with curricula integration with school districts. Not all, of course, are required to pay a fee (but appointments are important—a farmer's got to get his work done!).

Bustos showed us a few slides of his early attempts to move from the traditional farming his father had showed him to season extension with homemade hoophouses using PVC pipe on rebar, but snow made them collapse. From there he progressed to a more ambitious solar panel/undersoil heating system (which he still uses for part of his cropping).

As part of a larger farmer training program funded by Western SARE, several sites were given funds to create six coldframes per site to meet the demand for 200 pounds of salad greens per week for the local school district. Santa Cruz Farm used donated solar panels to heat water; the pipes run under soil mixed with aged manure in coldframes and high tunnels to grow during winter. The water is kept in a buried tank insulated by soil and foam; the water circulates at night under the coldframes. There are two closed loops: one is the water loop, the other is glycol, to draw off excess heat during day and help reheat the water during cold nights. 

The farm is changing over from this system in the hoop houses to a Haygrove high tunnel system of a full acre under cultivation, using cover crops only in the summer (heat tolerant ones such as pinto beans, sunflowers), with rollup sides. Bustos uses cloth on wire hoops underneath the larger high tunnels for frosty nights.

Marketing with the Neighbors
Santa Cruz Farm does direct marketing to the Sante Fe School District and at the Sante Fe Farmers' Market (22.5 miles one way), with winter crops and coldframes providing food for school district lunches. 

Innovators take the initial risk in building or taking advantage of a market, and then the second group jumps on and the risk becomes that of saturating the market that exists. So the larger group (now friends if all has gone well) needs to get together and find ways to expand the market. ("The phase we're in right now," said Bustos.) Sharing information and ideas for marketing help everyone to create niches, keep from flooding the market with too much of one item, and provide customers with variety. 

The Sante Fe Farmers' Market Institute took 30 years to build the markets, working with the community, the market people, the legislature, the school districts, etc. It took five years to get the legislature to change the procurement code so that farmers could sell sell directly to school districts, (allowing the bidding process to consider local preference and not just lowest price). There were presentations to the kids, donations to the schools, and hauling legislators to see kids actually eating the greeneries before the Legislature realized that yes, the children would actually eat vegetables and locally grown food.

See also: SARE conference workshops: water cisterns

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