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Mora growers’ co-op fills grocery store void

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Darlene Gallegos, a member of Los de Mora Local Growers’ Cooperative and an organic farmer, restocks the small grocery store in Cleveland with onions and garlic. Below: Among the locally-produced items for sale at Los de Mora Local Growers’ Cooperative in Cleveland: Chimayó red chile, eggs, and goat milk soap. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

CLEVELAND – Six days a week, a steady stream of grateful grocery shoppers park on a dirt road beside N.M. 518 and climb the wooden steps to the Los de Mora Local Growers’ Cooperative.

“We hear over and over, ‘Thank God you’re here,’ ” said Darlene Gallegos, the small store’s only full-time employee. “One day last week, we had a line, and people were standing there six feet apart and talking to each other, saying, ‘Well, if it weren’t for this place …’ ”

“Capacity 5,” reads a sign on the door that opens to two quiet, well-stocked rooms that offer a respite from the angst of pandemic-era supermarkets. Inside, hand-labeled bags of such homeopathic herbs as horehound and comfrey nestle in a wicker basket with local garbanzo beans from Trujillo Farms. A freezer opens to packaged lamb racks, beef sirloin and short ribs from Los Vallecitos, a 335-acre operation in Mora. A folding table features spinach and radishes grown by regional producers including Gallegos, who wears a mask as she rings up items at the register.

In the thick of COVID-19, when the phrase “supply chain” triggers anxieties both general and specific, one need look only to the grazing steers and verdant fields of Mora County to see community-supported local agriculture in action. The success of the two-year-old Los de Mora Local Growers’ Cooperative stems from an increasingly commonplace irony in northern New Mexico: a community of growers and livestock producers who found themselves without a grocery store.

In the early 1980s, Mora residents organized protests against the construction of an Allsup’s Convenience Store. They worried that a 24-hour chain store would squeeze out the mom-and-pop groceries of the region, though both Allsup’s and Family Dollar eventually set up shop in town. In 2017, a decadeslong fear came to pass when Russell’s Discount Foods closed on Mora’s Main Street. The lush river valley – once home to the bounteous wheat fields and flour mills that gave Mora County the pre-World War II nickname “the breadbasket of New Mexico” – was facing true food insecurity.

After Russell’s closed, a weekly farmers’ market still sold small quantities of locally grown produce. To Your Health, a Mora cooperative run by Seventh-Day Adventist volunteers, had long offered a trove of natural food items to supplement plant-based diets. The Mora Valley Ranch Supply began laying in a store of industrial groceries and frozen foods, along with a few locally produced goods. But in the absence of an actual grocery store, most Mora County residents were resigned to stocking up in Las Vegas, Taos or Santa Fe. For Los de Mora co-op organizers, the hardest part to swallow was that growers had to travel to sell the majority of their goods in other counties.

“I was delivering stuff to Cid’s (in Taos), and Dixon and Española,” said Gallegos, who grows gourmet greens, sweet corn and fruit at ET Organic Farm and Ranch in Rainsville. “But I always wanted to keep my stuff local. That was my goal when Russell’s closed.”

In 2018, less than two miles from the Cleveland Roller Mill Museum, the co-op set up shop in the shadow of the region’s rich agricultural history. “We started as a farm stand, but with refrigerators,” Gallegos laughed. As locals began to frequent the fledgling store, volunteers began supplementing with more produce and other goods from stores such as Sprouts in Santa Fe. The store instituted a shoppers’ “wish list” of potential items.

Now, Los de Mora has two distributors and receives four truckloads a week; on the shelves, name-brand spices, canned goods, and non-organic dairy and vegetables share space with local products. New producers pay a $100 fee to sell their goods at the store, and savvy shoppers have learned to come on Tuesdays and Fridays following the scheduled deliveries on Mondays and Thursdays. The co-op is also looking at other ways it can serve the community. Los de Mora nurtures self-sufficient practices by using their space for canning, baking and pickling workshops.

As one of only two New Mexico counties without a documented case of COVID-19 as of Friday, the pandemic has brought a flood of customers to the store. Gallegos and her masked crew members provide gloves to shoppers, and sterilize surfaces and carts after every departure.

“We are still getting new customers every day, all from Mora County,” Gallegos said. “For the month of March, I believe we made $17,000, if not more. That took up for the two years we were open!” While coronavirus limits meat production and drives up prices, the most popular items at Los de Mora are “our local meats, our dairy products and our fresh vegetables – that’s what’s being replenished so much now.”

Before Los de Mora opened its doors, Chacon resident and co-op shopper Sharon Stewart said she was used to provisioning in Santa Fe. Now, she frequents the store for its “clean protein” twice a month. “This whole grass-fed beef craze, you know, I look out my window and there’s the cow next door,” she said. “And in a way, the life of our valley is what people are getting back to.”

The Mora River Valley has a history of residents banding together to protect its abundant natural resources. In 2013, Mora County became the first in the nation to ban oil extraction and exploration. Stewart mentioned a recent grass-roots effort to stop the spraying of herbicides on county roads. “We got together – the bee folks, the organic growers’ co-op – and asked if we could have a meeting” with the highway department, she recalled. “We sat around in a circle. They listened, they seemed concerned, they were flexible.” The upshot? “They have not sprayed since.”

“We have the darkness and the light. There’s a lot of polarity here,” Stewart said of the close-knit place she calls home. “But, overall, we know that we can depend on one another if need be.”

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