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Traditional New Mexican Agriculture: We Had a Regional Food System

Don farming his ancestral land. Photo: Rebecca Meyer


by Don Bustos, AFSC NM Director

originally published in Green Fire Times, Nov 2011

When I was not more than 7 years old I remember going with my mother and father to the small villages of Ojo Sarco and Penasco. Mom and I walked from house to house, selling buckets of green chile for 50 cents (uno bota de diez). Empty lard cans were the standard measurement. We would also bring cucumbers, squash and potatoes. Dad would sell a 50-pound sack of potatoes for $2. He always made sure we would shake the sack and put in as many papas as the sack could carry. He wanted to make sure his customers got their full money’s worth, thus keeping his family business and community sustainable.

I also recall going on road trips through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, trading and selling vegetables that we grew. In almost every village, Dad traded for products the next pueblo needed. I remember picking up apples in Velarde from the Velardes and Ferrans that we would then sell at the fiestas in Taos and San Luis. We would set up under the trees on the main road. From there we would go to Fort Garland and set up for a day or two; make our way to Alamosa and Center, Colorado to pick up seed potatoes; and finally head down to La Jara and trade apples and green chile for a couple of new piglets. Sometimes Dad would go down to El Paso, meet the trains, and bring bananas and oranges that he would sell on the side of the road or at the schools in Española and other towns. In this way we were creating what I term a food hub, operating within a larger food production and distribution system.

Flash forward to the ‘60s and ‘70s and the farmers’ market in Los Alamos. Getting there we would be stopped at the security gate. Armed guards would let us pass and sell vegetables. Mom would set up at the pond in front of the courthouse and sell corn and chile. At the end of the afternoon we would go from house to house, selling our produce that had not sold at the market (that was permitted back in the day). If we finished early we would stop at the Los Alamos dump and find all sorts of cool stuff. We still have bombshells that we used for irrigation pipes.

For important considerations such as the environment, economics, food safely, food security, child nutrition and much more, over the last two decades there has been a large national movement toward locally and organically grown products. These issues help illustrate the need for securing a local or regional food system. The Obama administration and USDA announced this spring that they want to develop the local and regional food systems by helping to support 100,000 new small farmers in the next 10 years in order to have a food-secure nation. The USDA has started to fund projects for development and implementation of training, and is creating infrastructure for pilot projects though several different agencies.

In New Mexico that development brings new pressures to contend with. The amount of land and water that can be used for farming and grazing in the state is limited, and some disagreement has arisen as to how these demands can be met. For example, a recent focus group from NM, organized by Cornell University, is looking at models for changing our diets in order to fit the carrying capacity for this region. Others are looking at season extension or year-round production in cold frames or greenhouses. All this is taking place in the context of a food hub within a food system that has several complex issues and needs relating to region, climate, culture and a growing population.

The influx of new farmers to NM and the new markets that are developing tend to be accessible to a more aggressive, capitalistic marketer – as opposed to the more traditional bartering economy, with respect to culture and land-based people. There is a need to develop more and different markets for farmers and ranchers to sell their products within their respective food hubs. Policies need to be created that support traditional values relating to culture and barter systems.

Over the last 10 years, because of the demand for local products, one of the more profitable ways has been through an increase of farmers’ markets. Another way of increasing profits is by CSAs (Community Support Agriculture projects), where the middleman is cut out of the food chain, allowing the producer to put more money in his or her pocket. In recent years, several studies have shown that additional markets have to be developed to truly support a local economy. Other venues being developed in NM include initiatives such as the Santa Fe’s Farm-to-Restaurant project, which is in its second year. Co-ops have also been developed as a distribution model for local producers. There are also efforts like Agri-Cultura Network in the south valley of Albuquerque, where three community organizations, partnering with AFSC, are working with beginning farmers to grow produce year-round. They aggregate their vegetables to meet the demand of larger markets.

At times it seems like some rules and regulations are being used as a pretext to get rid of traditional farmers and ranchers. Examples of this include rules and regulations around food safety issues, and the way FDA is going about protecting our food sources. Some farmers and ranchers feel that USDA and FDA are trying to squeeze out the mid- and smaller producers.

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