Writer: D'Lyn Ford
QUESTA - Lupe Young, a grower whose family began farming in the northern town of Questa in the early 1900s, stopped producing wheat in 1984 because declining wheat prices and rising fuel and equipment costs wiped out his profits.
But in 1997, Young began growing organic wheat as part of the newly formed Sangre de Cristo Agricultural Producers cooperative. This year, he sold 140,000 pounds of organic wheat and flour through the co-op, earning a net profit of nearly $46,000.
"The co-op helped us switch to organic production, and that's the key to our profitability," Young said. "The co-op has also helped us develop good, dependable markets. It's really saved us in wheat production."
The co-op was founded in 1995 with the help of New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA) to assist northern New Mexico growers in producing and marketing organic wheat and other products.
NMSU's Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project (RAIPAP) has worked closely with the growers since the co-op's creation, providing technical assistance and education for members. In fact, the five founding members of the co-op were inexperienced farmers who originally sought Extension's help to learn the basics of agricultural production before launching commercial ventures.
"I started them with wheat because it was an easy crop to learn, and many of these people were one or two generations removed from agriculture," said Del Jimenez, agriculture specialist with RAIPAP. "We went with organic simply because we didn't have enough money to buy fertilizer. I never thought it would come this far."
As the co-op gained momentum, more experienced growers like Lupe Young joined, taking advantage of Extension's assistance to switch to organic production and sell through the cooperative. The co-op currently has nine members, mostly from Questa and Costilla north of Taos. Another five growers are expected to join in early 2002.
The key to the co-op's success is its organic product, which commands much higher prices than conventionally grown wheat.
Organic wheat currently sells for 11.6 cents per pound, compared with about 3.3 cents per pound for conventional wheat, Jimenez said.
Moreover, since 1998, the co-op has milled all its wheat into organic flour, which is then sold to customers in New Mexico at 30 cents per pound. The wheat is milled and bagged with Sangre de Cristo labels by Rocky Mountain Milling, an organic mill in Platville, Colo.
After deducting production, transportation costs and payment to the co-op, members receive another 5 cents per pound for the flour. Thus, co-op growers receive a total net profit of 16.6 cents per pound for organic wheat and flour, or more than five times the 3.3 cents per pound that conventional growers earn selling wheat on the open market, Jimenez said.
Co-op members have slowly but steadily built up a niche market in New Mexico with assistance from the NMDA.
"They went 'door-to-door' so to say," Jimenez said. "They've worked hard to build up a local brand name by promoting their flour as an organic product wholly produced in New Mexico by New Mexico growers."
Indeed, their biggest client is Santa Fe-based Cloud Cliff Bakery, which launched a completely new organic bread made from Sangre de Cristo co-op flour and dubbed "Pan Nativo," Spanish for "Native Bread."
Cloud Cliff buys about 12,000 pounds of flour per month from the co-op and bakes 10,000 to 12,000 loaves of Pan Nativo monthly for natural food stores and retailers such as Sam's Club, said owner Willem Malten.
"The bread's name denotes the native character of the whole project, and that's our selling point," Malten said. "The intent is to use 100 percent local ingredients produced by local farmers and made into bread by a local bakery. It's my best-selling product."
Co-op production has grown immensely over the last six years, from 40,000 pounds of wheat in 1997 to a 560,000-pound bumper crop this year.
"Production in 2001 was the best we've ever had," Jimenez said. "The growers' knowledge and experience has grown each year, so yields have increased. The numbers are particularly good this year because they got the crop in early, there were good rains, they irrigated more, and there were few problems with insects and disease."
In 2002, growers will begin a crop rotation program financed in part by a $10,000 grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. They will rotate wheat with legumes-beginning with peas-to build nitrogen in the soil and diversify their organic products for market.
Although the co-op has greatly benefited all its members, perhaps the biggest advantage is for small-scale growers like David Cordova, one of the five founding members. This year, Cordova earned nearly $10,000 from the wheat he grew on his 40-acre farm in Garcia, Colo., which borders Costilla, accounting for about 40 percent of his family's $25,000 annual income.
"There are no opportunities up here, so we do whatever we can to get by," Cordova said. "The co-op has given us a much better income, and it's kept me from having to work somewhere else."
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