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Cultivating a vision to sustain generations: A conversation with Don Bustos

Don Bustos
Don Bustos, Program Director for AFSC in New Mexico. Photo: Lynn Walters / Lynn Walters

In August I spent a day in New Mexico, visiting AFSC’s farmer training program near Albuquerque.

I met the trainees, hearing from AFSC’s Sayrah Namaste about elements of the program and upcoming plans to expand state-wide, funded in large part by the Kellogg Foundation. I finished the day by talking with program director Don Bustos at his farm near Espanola.

AFSC’s New Mexico program works in underserved communities to train beginner farmers in sustainable agriculture practices. The farmers grow high value crops—gourmet salad mix, blackberries, asparagus, carrots—and sell their produce collaboratively to diverse markets such as restaurants, natural food stores, and institutional buyers.

An additional distribution channel is the Agri-Cultura Network, which AFSC established in 2009. The network aggregates produce from several farmers so that they have enough supply to attract institutional buyers, including the Albuquerque Public Schools.

Water rights are closely linked to farming in the New Mexico program. The state has a system of acequias—community operated waterways used for irrigation—which are regulated by commissions. Because water is scarce, there are folks interested in encroaching on others’ water rights, but if people who hold the rights can demonstrate that they are using the water for beneficial uses like farming, they can retain their access to the water.

The program Don and Sayrah have built in collaboration with community members demonstrates AFSC’s distinctive approach: to build programs based on needs in the community, but not to shy away from taking on the systemic issues that may keep the grassroots efforts from flourishing. Don advocates for state and federal farm policy that would benefit underserved small farmers using sustainable practices.

Watch a slideshow of farmer training sites in New Mexico's South Valley with which AFSC New Mexico has worked.

Don Bustos in his kitchen at Santa Cruz Farm

Don Bustos in his kitchen at Santa Cruz Farm

Don Bustos in his kitchen at Santa Cruz Farm

Lucy Duncan (LD): Tell me the history of this farm and its relationship to the AFSC New Mexico program.

Don Bustos (DB): The name of our farm is Santa Cruz Farm, after our church the Santa Cruz Church, and then the Santa Cruz de la Canada Land Grant. I still farm the same land my ancestors farmed over 300 years ago and as you walk outside, you'll see the same land, the same crops, and the same methods that my ancestors used. That's the knowledge we pass on to the trainees.

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Don Bustos in his fields at Santa Cruz Farm

Don Bustos in his fields at Santa Cruz Farm

Lucy Duncan (LD): At some point you were using pesticides, and you stopped.

Don Bustos (DB): That's how our farm moved from conventional growing to certified organic. In the 1960s I was still a young lad, we were still farming naturally.

Then in 1967 an agricultural agent came by and gave my dad a bottle of liquid. I learned later that it was DDT. He mixed it with water. That year we had perfect corn, none of our corn had worms, we had a great crop. So my dad started to use it. That was the late 1960s until I started to take over in the late 70s and mid 80s. There was a period where my dad would use chemical fertilizers and insecticides, all approved by USDA and encouraged to be used. 

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Agri-Cultura Network Produce

Agri-Cultura Network Produce

Lucy Duncan (LD): What changes have you witnessed in the communities in which you've worked?

Don Bustos (DB): People used to say the model you've created only depends on you. I'd say, "If that's true, then the model's not working."

In Las Cruces, in Chapparal, we're working with a group of immigrant growers. The group we're working with created a little farm in the middle of the desert, with limited water. They have cold frames, they are forming a cooperative, it's mostly women. Women have really come into the project; we're hearing their voices more and more. They are growing food; they are going to the markets and speaking.

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About the Author

Lucy was the Director of Friends Relations from 2011-2021. 

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