Fed the cleanest grains owner Robert Kyzer can supply and never dosed with hormones or antibiotics, the South Valley pigs have won fans who prize the taste of the resulting pork. Some devout customers have been known to drive for hours to buy one.
But Kyzer’s sales have traditionally been small; he relied mostly on those buying an animal to roast at weddings, birthday parties or other family get-togethers.
Now, though, Kyzer can rattle off a list of restaurants across New Mexico that serve his meat, a credit to his partnership with La Montañita Co-op Distribution Center. The Albuquerque-based operation buys food from an estimated 300 New Mexico ranchers, farmers and other food producers, and then sells it to a network of commercial customers around the state.
The center, sometimes referred to as CDC, began working with Kyzer five years ago and helped build a consistent demand for his pork. That has resulted in a 40 percent uptick in business, Kyzer said.
“We were doing like two and three (pigs) a week (for CDC) and now we’re up to 10 a week,” he said. “That’s not a lot – you’re talking 40 pigs a month – but when you’re talking for the whole year … it adds up pretty good.”
Since it started eight years ago, La Montañita’s center has served as a channel for local producers looking to expand their market, and a source for higher-volume customers who want to serve and sell local food. CDC navigates some of the distribution, logistics and marketing challenges that might otherwise squelch that food flow.
CDC grew out of La Montañita Co-op – a consumer-owned cooperative with six retail markets – but counts La Montañita as one of its many customers. CDC also sells to other cooperatives and markets around the state, dozens of restaurants and even Whole Foods.
CDC Manager Michelle Franklin said expanding sales opportunities for local producers remains her primary charge.
“Access to market is sort of my overriding mantra,” she said.
CDC falls into the category of a “regional food hub.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines those as operations that help “(manage) the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand.” A few hundred exist around the country.
Terry Brunner, New Mexico state director for USDA Rural Development, said CDC is New Mexico’s largest regional food hub. He said it and other hubs improve consumer access to local food. Perhaps more important, he said, they’re problem solvers who can help build predictable sales for small producers, including those whose only other sales alternative may be a farmer’s market.
“The more options we have available to our farmers and ranchers, the more they can produce and make a living,” he said.
Outside of La Montañita stores, CDC’s biggest buyers include Mountain View Market Co-op in Las Cruces, Cid’s Food Market in Taos and Los Poblanos in Albuquerque.
With $5.5 million in annual sales and customers whose needs extend beyond New Mexico’s growing or production abilities, CDC cannot deal exclusively in local food. That’s why it also distributes some national brands. In fact, it was a relationship with Organic Valley – a giant in the organic dairy world – that helped CDC fill trucks, develop distribution routes and bolster its overall offering for customers. CDC also works with farmers from the greater region, getting, for example, potatoes from southern Colorado and citrus fruit from Texas.
But Franklin estimates that 20 percent of what passes through the warehouse was sourced from within the Land of the Enchantment. As she walked through CDC’s chilly warehouse on a recent weekday morning, she pointed out one local product after another, telling stories that often begin and end in New Mexico – the locally made salsa that she sells to an Albuquerque grocery store chain; the flour milled in Valencia County and used by a Santa Fe pizzeria; the Kyzer pigs destined for Dr. Field Goods Kitchen and Farm & Table in Albuquerque.
Artichoke Cafe buys Organic Valley dairy products through La Montañita’s center, as well as locally raised beef and produce. While the Albuquerque fine-dining restaurant sources ingredients from various suppliers, chef Cristina Martinez said La Montañita delivers twice a week and its offerings are “always awesome.”
Using local “matters to us big time,” Martinez said recently from the Artichoke kitchen, where she was incorporating some La Montañita butternut squash into a puree for the night’s artichoke and beef ravioli. “The quality is superb. … You can taste the difference.”
Franklin said she aims to expand the local offerings at the warehouse, which has undergone some significant expansion. It more than tripled in size with a 2012 move to its current 17,000-square-foot facility in central Albuquerque. Just this summer, the CDC used a $70,000 grant from the Wallace Center at Winrock International, a Va.-based nonprofit, to increase its refrigeration capacity by adding a fourth cooler.
The extra cooler space allowed CDC to buy thousands of pounds of carrots from Schwebach Farm, a 160-acre operation in Moriarty that grew more carrots than ever this year.
Owner Dean Schwebach – who typically sells directly to consumers at his farm, roadside stands or growers’ markets – said the carrot deal worked for both parties this season, but situations tend to change year to year. He said CDC has proven a flexible partner when he needs one. He began working with the CDC a few years ago while trying to unload some extra sweet onions and he said the staff has been a nimble ally when he finds himself overflowing with certain veggies.
“Whenever we’re long on some particular item, I can talk with them about different possibilities of moving that and they’re extremely helpful in trying to get that done. It’s not a competitive conversation because they’re just trying to get food distributed and it’s not like they’re competing with any of the other warehouses in the area on price,” he said. “They’re trying to get the grower a good price and they’re trying to get good food on people’s tables in the area, so that’s really been a blessing.”
Franklin said her staff always looks to match sellers with buyers, sometimes offering creative solutions to producer problems.
For example, southern New Mexico growers recently needed an outlet for their bumper apple crop. Many were not retail grade but were still edible, so CDC helped facilitate their transfer to local food banks.
La Montañita staff also work directly with growers on new projects.
Ed Ogaz of Seco Spice, a farm just north of Anthony, said he values his relationship with CDC and not just because it distributes his chile, jalapeños and vegetables. Since Seco Spice already works with some other national-scale distributors, CDC represents just a fraction of the farm’s overall sales. But Ogaz called it an innovative, “forward-thinking” operation that has prompted him to explore new possibilities, whether it’s organic cucumbers or dehydrated fruit.
“They’re always on the edge,” he said. “They always throw opportunities at me. … The organic world has a lot of untapped markets. They’re very good at that and how to push those other areas that maybe we hadn’t really thought of a lot.”