Seeds of community - Albuquerque Journal

Seeds of community

Stephanie Grenadier, manager of El Morro Feed & Seed, a nonprofit country store in Cibola County, surveys El Morro’s empty feed room. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

CIBOLA COUNTY – It’s midday on a recent Thursday morning at El Morro Feed & Seed, the nonprofit country store on N.M. 53, 40 miles west of Grants.

Outside, there’s a cold bite in the air and patches of snow on nearby mountainsides. But it’s homey and comfortable inside, amid the shelves of fresh and packaged food and the bank of freezers along one wall.

Store manager Stephanie Grenadier and cashier Walker Ricon are stationed behind the long checkout counter as customers explore their options.

Matthew De Gumbia, 52, who identifies himself as a retired cannabis farmer from Northern California, is buying lettuce and carrots.

Emily Brent, 25, a wilderness steward intern at nearby El Morro National Monument, has filled her shopping basket with oat milk, coffee, chips, lettuce, carrots, stuffed grape leaves and vegan, gluten-free cookies.

“The store has some high-quality stuff, and I didn’t have to go to Grants or Gallup,” said De Gumbia, who has lived in the area for two years. “During the (height of the) pandemic, the store was a lifeline, especially for older people who did not want to go to crowded places.”

Brent said she does most of her shopping in Grants.

“But I come here for the local produce and these cookies that are so good,” she said. “And the people who work here are beautiful, shining people. I leave here feeling content. It is a welcoming store.”

Grenadier, 58, El Morro’s manager since July 2020, knows the store is more than feed, seed, local produce and great cookies.

“People are coming out of this pandemic time lonely,” she said. “They come in for a cup of coffee. They come in just to see a face.”

But as vital as it is to the residents scattered about the remote parts of Cibola and adjacent McKinley counties, the store is on the brink of failure due to the disruption of normal supply and distribution avenues caused by the pandemic and the loss to fire of the Albuquerque mill that supplied most of the hay and feed for El Morro’s rancher customers.

“It all just went down so fast,” Grenadier said. “It doesn’t look good, and it doesn’t look like it is getting any better.”

Manuel Sanchez, left, delivers fresh eggs to El Morro Feed & Seed cashier Walker Ricon. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Truck dreams

Area resident Kate Brown founded the store as a private, commercial business in 2008.

“She started it primarily as a feed store. Feed and hay was what she saw a need for,” said Grenadier, who considers Brown her mentor. “She did not bring in groceries for about four years.”

In 2020, Brown donated the store to Work in Beauty Inc., a nonprofit whose mission is sustainable agriculture and supporting local farmers. El Morro Feed & Seed became the place for storing and distributing locally grown and raised foods.

Area farmers provide the store with eggs, meat, and vegetables such as spinach, chard, asparagus, arugula, garlic, cucumbers, celery, tomatoes, green beans, summer and winter squash, as well as apples, strawberries and raspberries.

“When the growing season is on, people will call to see what’s in. ‘Did Jackie drop off lettuce yet?'” Grenadier said. “Groceries became more important during the pandemic.”

It’s a 45-minute drive one way to Grants and more than an hour to Gallup. And out here, where many people live on dirt roads, drives can take a lot longer than that when rain turns roads to mud and snow and ice turn drives into perilous expeditions. Toss in the restrictions in force during the early stages of COVID-19, and El Morro Feed & Seed became essential rather than a fallback option.

“Financially, 2020 was the best year the store ever had,” Grenadier said. “Thousands (of dollars) above any other year. We didn’t have to write any grants.”

But about a year ago, the Albuquerque feed mill burned down.

“Feed and hay is what keeps the store open,” Grenadier said. “Without that, the store’s future is dubious.”

The Albuquerque feed store that burned down used to make deliveries right to the store’s door. There are other sources of feed and hay, but getting it transported to El Morro is the challenge. The store is seeking about $20,000 in grant money and donations to purchase two trucks for sale in the area.

“One truck is a diesel lift truck, in which we could transport needed supplies,” Grenadier said. “The other is a previously licensed food truck that would be used as a community kitchen for local chefs and bakers to make food that would be legal to sell in our store.”

Grenadier said the Governor’s Office and the offices of U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján have supported the store’s grant applications.

“But most federal grants will not be looked at until May,” she said. “I don’t know if we can make it until May.”

El Morro Feed & Seed cashier Walker Ricon tries to locate an item for a customer. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Strange magic

Grenadier is from the San Francisco Bay area and lived for 30 years in Boston’s South Shore. She studied fine arts photography at San Francisco State and earned a master’s in expressive arts therapy from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also went to school for massage therapy.

She and her husband, Tim, decided to teach a digital photo workshop in 2016 at the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, which is not far from El Morro Feed & Seed.

“I had no idea what this place was like,” Grenadier said of the rugged, mostly untamed part of Cibola County she now calls home. “I did not think I could live away from the ocean. This place is kooky. But I told my husband, ‘I want to move here.’ He said, ‘I want to move here, too.'”

She still has a difficult time explaining why.

“There’s a strange magic here,” she said. “Part of it is the community. We were so instantly embraced. Because it is so harsh here, this crazy group of people takes care of each other no matter what they believe.”

Now, Tim works in media for the wolf sanctuary. Grenadier worked there, too, before she became manager of El Morro. They live in a community called Candy Kitchen, a 30-minute drive from the store.

“It’s unincorporated land,” Grenadier said. “Old ranchers, young want-to-be-homesteaders, veterans, new hippies and survivalists live there.”

El Morro Feed & Seed is west of the Continental Divide and Bandera Volcano and east of El Morro National Monument.

Grenadier said the store serves an isolated cluster of communities made up of a diverse and eclectic population, including members of the Navajo Nation and Zuni Pueblo and a larger-than-average representation of LGBTQIA individuals. Nearby is the Zuni Mountain Sanctuary, founded and administered by Radical Faeries, a counterculture movement that combines gay consciousness with secular spirituality.

And there has been a significant influx of new people into the area since the pandemic started, Grenadier said.

“It is people coming to a place where they can get away from people,” she said. “Some are people who had lost their jobs. Land here is inexpensive. At least it was at the start.”

El Morro Feed & Seed manager Stephanie Grenadier, left, and cashier Walker Ricon ring up purchases made by customer Emily Brent at the nonprofit general store in Ramah. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Good energy

Manuel Sanchez, 71, brings in nine dozen eggs to sell to El Morro Feed and Seed. He has 28 hens at his home in El Morro Ranches, the community he and his wife, retired educations who taught in El Paso, moved to three years ago.

La Montañita Co-op, out of Albuquerque, is the only business outside of this area making deliveries – fresh produce, health items, pet food – to El Morro now.

The store gets a lot of product from area farmers such as Sanchez.

“We buy 12 to 15 dozen eggs a week,” Grenadier said. “We only bring in store-bought eggs in November and December. It is fresh eggs the rest of the time.”

Sanchez not only delivers eggs to the store, he shops there.

“It’s 15 minutes to get here and 40 minutes to Grants, plus the gas gets expensive,” he said. “People come here to buy, but also to talk to people they know.”

Chris Loeffler, 70, also sells eggs to the store. And lamb meat and a wide variety of vegetables. She and her husband, an industrial engineer who worked for the Department of Defense, moved into the area from Albuquerque in 2006. She also was a teacher before becoming a full-on farmer.

“The store has good, healthy, natural food, not the kind you pick up at convenience stores,” she said. “People are trying to stay healthy.”

Sienna Wind, 14, and her brother, Chaska, 10, come out of El Morro Feed & Seed toting heavy shopping bags.

“It’s like healthy food,” Sienna said. “We buy greens, spinach and lettuce. My grandmother gets organic Cheetos and piñon sodas.”

Sienna’s grandmother is Kaiiba Mountain, 62. Mountain and her grandchildren moved here from Taos four years ago.

“We just like living in the woods,” Mountain said. “We live off grid and collect rain water. This store is so important to us. Being able to get quality pet food, as well as livestock needs, seeds, plant starts and garden supplies is essential to most of us out here.

“And it’s a good source of community. We live in Candy Kitchen and hardly see anybody. This is a social event for us. It is good for the spirit, good energy. It would be a huge loss for many if it were to close.”

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