Writer: Kevin Robinson-Avila
MORA - For years Gabriel Longoria has wanted to quit his highway department job in West Texas to move to his wife's hometown of Mora, N.M., and herd sheep, but he's never had the money to do it.
Next spring, however, Longoria, 49, will finally take the plunge, thanks to a new Heifer International project to provide grants for aspiring livestock producers in Mora and other northern counties to buy sheep, goats and other animals.
"On my own, I'd never have enough money to buy livestock, but if Heifer furnishes the animals, that's the leg up I need," Longoria said. "This is an opportunity to move permanently to my wife's hometown. I grew up around livestock and ranching and this is my chance to get back to that lifestyle."
Heifer will provide up to $125,000 in start-up loans for a joint project with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service and the Mora-based Tapetes de Lana wool processing and weaving factory. Under the partnership, Extension will teach growers to feed, care for, breed and shear animals, said Skip Finley, Extension agricultural agent in Mora. Tapetes de Lana will provide a ready market for wool.
"Sheep herding was historically very big here, but now it's almost nonexistent, with just a couple of hundred animals at best," Finley said. "Under the Heifer project, we'll triple the number of local herds in a very short time and get wool production going again. In the long term, we're talking thousands of new head of sheep, goats and other livestock. It will significantly improve income for many families here."
The Aug. 26 opening of Tapetes de Lana's new, 11,000 square-foot wool processing center in Mora provided impetus for the Heifer project, said Carla Gomez, Tapetes de Lana founder and executive director. The plant, financed with a $760,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, is equipped with industrial machinery to wash, card and spin up to 400 pounds of wool yarn a day, making it the state's largest wool processing center.
"When we reach full production, the mill can process up to 100,000 pounds of wool a year into yarn," Gomez said. "That creates a lot of opportunity for local growers to sell us their fleeces."
Tapetes de Lana, a nonprofit organization formed in 1998, currently employs about 20 weavers to make wool blankets, rugs, table runners and other goods. With the new wool processing mill at full production, Tapetes will directly employ about 70 people, making it Mora County's largest private employer, Gomez said.
Dozens of other residents will earn income from sheep and wool production under the Heifer project, said Pat Melendrez, an Extension natural resources specialist. Melendrez helped 16 prospective producers form the new Sangre de Cristo Valley Livestock Growers Association Aug. 30 in Mora. At least 15 more are expected to join the association at the next meeting Sept. 28.
Through the association, producers will collectively manage the Heifer grant, making loans to individual growers, Melendrez said.
The Heifer program, which began in 1944 and operates worldwide, provides loans to resource-limited families to buy livestock and other farm goods for self-sustaining agricultural ventures. Heifer requires all grant recipients to "repay" loans by providing more families with new-born animals as the herds grow.
"It's a 'pay-it-forward' concept that allows participants to incorporate more producers as the project develops," said Rigoberto Delgado, Heifer's Southwest program manager.
Heifer frequently relies on Extension to provide technical assistance and education, Delgado said.
"Grant recipients need training and support that we can't provide, so Extension is a natural partner for us," Delgado said. "Extension agents generally offer technical assistance to producers throughout the life of a project."
In Mora, Melendrez and Finley will supervise the production cycle, from selecting animals to selling meat and wool. Selection is particularly important because Tapetes de Lana wants specialty wool, Melendrez said.
"We need animals like churro sheep and angora goats that produce high-quality fiber with a variety of colors and textures," Melendrez said. "Those types of wool earn about $4 a pound, or four to five times more than traditional white wool sold on the open market."
The association's goal is 12,000 pounds in annual sales to Tapetes de Lana by the project's third year. Given the mill's 100,000-pound capacity, there's much room for future growth, Melendrez said.
Longoria, who joined the association at its inaugural meeting, will ask Heifer for 25 sheep and 25 angora goats. He expects each female goat and ewe to produce up to two offspring per year.
"Most will produce twins, so I'll get 25 to 50 new goats each year, and the same with lambs," Longoria said. "I want to build the herd into a business I can live off of. If all goes well, I can start making a profit in the first year."
Eric Biderman, who raises cattle and grows fresh produce on 15 acres in Ribera, will request about six sheep from Heifer to start a herd and diversify his farm income.
"Even a small helping hand can go a long way for growers here," Biderman said. "Projects like this one help keep local agriculture alive."
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