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Working to make Santa Fe a ‘food hub’

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Farmer Matt Romero, from Dixon, roasts green chile for customers at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. Local government officials are encouraging development of Santa Fe as a “food hub.” (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Early on a misty morning in late October, about 100 people gathered at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center for a free “food summit.” Fortified by breakfast burritos and hot coffee, attendees and speakers set about the business of the day: exchanging “social capital” and building a food industry ecosystem.

Sure, the Santa Fe Farmers Market has been operating for more than a half-century and the City Different is home to some of the best fine-dining restaurants in the Southwest, if not the U.S., many sourcing local produce and grass-fed livestock.

But despite Santa Fe’s epicurian pedigree, there is still more work to be done to encourage food industry entrepreneurship in northern New Mexico, according to government officials and economic development experts.

Yozell-Epstein shows off a watermelon radish from Silver Leaf Farms in Corrales. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Alongside Santa Fe’s thriving business sectors of tourism and hospitality, the arts, health care and film, and emerging media, the city has identified three industries with growth potential: technology and advanced manufacturing, agtech and the food sector.

The latter offers the “greatest opportunity for regional and statewide systemic collaboration,” said Liz Camacho, administrator at the Santa Fe’s Office of Economic Development, who helped organize the Oct. 24 Santa Fe Food Summit.

According to an October 2017 study cited by Camacho, as many as 709 jobs could be produced if Santa Feans dedicated just 10% of their food dollars to local goods.

Nina Yozell-Epstein, owner of Squash Blossom Local Food, holds carrots grown by Mandez Produce in Velarde. Yozell-Epstein delivers locally grown foods to restaurants and individual subscribers. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

So how do we get from here to there? “One of the biggest hurdles to entrepreneurship is people’s lack of social capital,” Camacho said. “Getting people in the same room and networking increases people’s connections and avoids duplicate efforts.”

Santa Fe County senior planner Erin Ortigoza discussed the idea of creating a food hub at the 470-acre La Bajada Ranch near La Cienega, which the county bought for $7 million in 2009.

Successful entrepreneurs, such as Nina Yozell-Epstein, who connects local farmers with customers through her Squash Blossom Local Food delivery service, were also on hand and touted the benefits of public-private partnerships.

On the company’s website, Yozell-Epstein explains why she chose the name Squash Blossom for her startup: “Not only are we the only distribution company able to sell the delicate squash blossoms, we also see our business as the squash blossom compared to the industrialized food movement.”

In 2018, Yozell-Epstein won the City of Santa Fe’s Small Business of the Year and the Small Business Administration’s New Mexico Home-Based Business of the Year.

Two main themes

As speakers and audience members exchanged ideas at the summit, two themes emerged:

• It’s difficult for startups to obtain financing from traditional sources, such as banks. “I remember approaching a bank to get money when I was just starting out and they told me to come back when I was profitable,” recalled Sandra Bosben, founder of Marty’s Meals, a Santa Fe-based healthy pet food producer.

• The demand for organic local produce and grains far exceeds demand. Santa Fe Spirits owner Colin Keegan urged audience members at the food summit to contact him if they’re interested in growing grains in New Mexico.

Having a tasting room in the City Different and the name Santa Fe on the label helps him stand out in the crowded craft spirits field, he said, but it’s difficult to source all his ingredients locally.

“Everyone is having a hard time sourcing local product,” said Tejinder Ciano, founder of Reunity Resources, a nonprofit that collects food waste from area schools and restaurants, and creates high-nutrient compost. Reunity in turn uses that compost on its community farm, where it grows produce to donate to local food banks.

It’s not a shortage of arable land that’s holding back food production in northern New Mexico, the city’s Camacho said.

“Young people aren’t interested in farming,” she said in an interview.

Asked to back that statement up, she cited a 2017 study by New Mexico First and New Mexico State University that was funded by the Thornburg Foundation. According to the report, farming’s high cost of entry (not just land, but also machinery) and low profit margins, among other things, are a deterrent to attracting young people.

Enter Santa Fe Community College, where a variety of ag and agtech initiatives are underway, including cultivation of spiriluna, an algae taken as a dietary supplement, within its School of Trades, Advanced Technologies and Sustainability.

Nina Yozell-Epstein, owner of Squash Blossom Local Food, displays the contents of her Blossom Bag, a local food subscription service. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Education and innovation can help generate interest among young people in the food production cycle, Camilla Bustamante, dean for the SFCC schools of Trades and Advanced Technologies, told those attending the summit.

There was also recognition at the gathering that Santa Fe can’t become a food hub on its own.

The recent news that Verde Juice founder Kelly Egolf is looking at Albuquerque as a possible location for her Fresh Foods company drives home the obstacles posed by the City Different’s expensive real estate. On Wednesday, the City Council postponed a vote on whether to authorize the issuance of $18 million in industrial revenue bonds for Egolf’s high-pressure food-processing business. Fresh Foods had been expected to generate more than 160 jobs in Mid-Town Santa Fe.

Indeed, “central New Mexico” – not just Santa Fe or Albuquerque – is one of four communities chosen in the U.S. by ESHIP, an entrepreneurship initiative of Forward Cities, a nonprofit backed by the Kauffman Foundation. Along with Long Beach, California, Baltimore and Kansas City, Missouri, central New Mexico’s Rio Grande corridor will serve as a laboratory of sorts.

It will be a testbed to develop ecosystems that “foster inclusion, relationships, collaboration and social capital across networks of entrepreneurs and those who support them,” according to the nonprofit’s website.

At the summit, Ortizoga unveiled Santa Fe County’s online platform to connect growers and buyers. Known as AgriGate, it can be found at www.agrigatesfc.org.

And, starting Monday, she will join the central New Mexico ESHIP, which isn’t quite ready to talk about its plans, said Eric Renz-Whitmore, a former member of the City of Albuquerque’s economic development team. Renz-Whitmore recently became director of ESHIP Communities at Forward Cities.

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