NMSU branding

New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

New Santa Fe Family Farmers' Co-op Helps Struggling Growers Stay Profitable

ESPAÑOLA - For fresh organic produce, Española resident Bill Yelvington bypasses the supermarket and buys directly from his neighbor, Don Bustos, a local certified organic grower.

Yelvington is one of a few dozen local consumers who have bought into the new marketing concept of consumer-supported agriculture (CSA) that Bustos initiated in the Española Valley.

For an advance payment of $275, Bustos provided Yelvington with a weekly box of produce for five months, from spring to fall, that included basic vegetables like chile, squash, tomatoes, carrots, onions and broccoli, plus an assortment of herbs like rosemary, basil and arugula. Yelvington even got a pound or two of fresh greens every week that Bustos packages and sells as mixed salads. And for another $150 payment in November, Yelvington will receive more weekly deliveries through the winter months.

"It's a great deal," Yelvington said. "I pay Don up front, which helps him out, and I get high-quality, fresh produce like clockwork throughout the year, and with lots of variety, too. I get so many vegetables that I give a lot away to my family and friends, and it's cheaper than buying it at the supermarket."

Thanks to the new Santa Fe Family Farmers' Cooperative that Bustos and other local growers formed this year, Yelvington may soon be one of scores of northern New Mexico consumers who buy their produce directly from local farmers rather than supermarkets.

The marketing cooperative incorporated in January 2001 with technical assistance from New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service and other organizations. Its goal is to make marketing easier and more profitable for struggling local growers, said Tony Valdez, Extension agriculture agent in Rio Arriba County who has advised growers on how to organize and operate the co-op since early 2000.

"Farmers spend a huge amount of time trying to find markets and deliver their products," Valdez said. "The cooperative will decrease that burden. It will help growers find additional markets and it will provide delivery, invoicing, even packaging services if the grower needs that."

That could increase profits for farmers and allow them to spend more time working the land, Valdez said.

With assistance from Extension and other agencies such as the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, the co-op has been awarded about $165,000 in grants from a variety of sources, allowing growers to invest in coolers to store produce and a truck for deliveries. It also allowed them to hire a marketing coordinator and draw up a three-year business plan.

The plan calls for marketing to retailers, wholesalers and restaurants. But it emphasizes the CSA concept as the co-op's largest target market.

The goal is to convince consumers to join a local CSA association, committing them to advance payments for produce deliveries. About 1,000 such associations currently operate in the United States, including four in New Mexico, according to Bustos, who formed his in 1998.

The arrangement offers growers many advantages, such as providing investment capital early in the season, a guaranteed market and top prices for produce because all intermediaries are eliminated, Bustos said. The consumer gets fresh, quality produce at a slightly cheaper price than at the supermarket, while helping sustain local agriculture.

"It's a win-win situation," Bustos said.

Forming a CSA alliance goes hand-in-hand with the co-op's promotional strategy of "buying local," Bustos said. "We want to build up brand recognition as local producers."

Once formed, the northern counties will house the only consumer alliance in New Mexico that supports a farmers' cooperative. There are only a few such alliances in the United States, since most CSA associations are created to support individual farms, Bustos said.

About 40 customers--including individuals, retailers and restaurants--are now buying from the cooperative, with about $50,000 in sales this first year, said Sarah Grant, marketing coordinator.

Next year, the co-op will aggressively push the CSA concept, aiming to sign up 175 individual consumers by 2003. With the alliance operating, Grant projects at least $100,000 in sales in 2002 and $150,000 in 2003.

The co-op currently has six full members and about 35 growers who participate as nonmember affiliates, Bustos said. "Co-op members pay an entrance fee and annual dues, which gives them a vote in planning and decisions and places them first on the list to sell their produce. Nonmembers can also sell through the co-op if their produce meets quality standards."

Farmers pay a sliding fee depending on services provided, Valdez said. The co-op offers simple brokerage services, or full packaging, delivery and invoicing. It also functions as a supply cooperative, buying goods in bulk at wholesale prices so participants get supplies cheaper.

Valdez expects more farmers to join as sales through the cooperative grow.

"Farmers will be slow at first to participate, because it's hard to get people to accept new ways of doing business," Valdez said. "But once the benefits are demonstrated and farmers recognize its value, I think growers from many northern counties will join."