South Valley farmer Fidel Gonzalez wants to give his children something he believes offers security in an uncertain world – the ability to grow their own food.
Former bank IT security specialist Molly Booker wants to learn how to sustain herself during retirement.
Programs that teach farming skills help people like Gonzalez and Booker realize their dreams by providing hands-on experience, access to land and business guidance on how to find reliable markets for their products.
Gonzalez is one of almost 50 farmers statewide who participated in a program run by American Friends Service Committee in the past four years. AFCS is a Quaker organization active since 1976 in New Mexico that enlists older farmers to pass on their skill and knowledge to a younger generation that did not grow up with that lifestyle.
“Two generations ago, almost everybody did farm. They had their kitchen gardens, they at least fed themselves,” said AFCS co-director Sayrah Namaste.
Those habits changed as the population drifted away from the land to live in larger cities, pursue higher education and find jobs in a corporate environment, she said.
Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture shows the number of farms has declined and farmers are getting older. The most recent census showed the average age of farmers was 58.3 years in 2012, up from 50.5 in 1982.
Working the land
Participants in the AFCS program pay no fee but must commit to training three days a week for a year, during which they receive hands-on instruction in how to select, plant and organically cultivate a diverse range of crops; how to harvest and handle produce to ensure consistent quality; and how to work together to market their products. AFCS has farmer training programs in the South Valley and in Doña Ana, Mora and Rio Arriba counties.
In the South Valley, AFCS has created the Agri-Cultura Network of 15 small farms. Most are smaller than an acre on land that was previously fallow. The landowners who heard about the program typically contacted AFCS eager for someone to work the land. The arrangement allows the landowners to maintain any associated water rights and continue to pay property tax at agricultural rates which are lower than non-agricultural rates, said AFCS farmer trainer Patrick Jaramillo.
“We want to empower communities to feed themselves,” Jaramillo said.
The farms produce an array of vegetables including salad greens, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, squash, melons, blackberries and asparagus. Farmers collaborate to sell produce at farmers markets and to local restaurants, La Montañita Co-op and Albuquerque Public Schools.
APS food and nutrition operations manager Steve Carleton estimated he gets about 120 pounds of salad greens a week from the Agri-Cultura network. He said it gives the school kids who are accustomed to iceberg lettuce an opportunity to try new flavors.
Rio Grande Community Farm, a nonprofit that manages the Los Poblanos Open Space in the North Valley, started the Las Huertas Farmer Training Program this year. The curriculum costs $700, which includes 50 hours of class time and 100 hours of training in the field during the spring and summer. The teaching focuses on sustainable and organic methods to cultivate crops and manage water in New Mexico’s high desert conditions.
“We offer this to people who are interested in scaling up from backyard growing, or for people who want to start a small-scale farm,” said Farm Manager Sean Ludden.
Ludden is planning to offer an additional course in the fall that will address the business aspect of farming and how to craft a business plan. Participants will have the opportunity to lease land at Los Poblanos for up to three years to begin putting their business plan into practice.
“There are tools and technical advice that go with that,” Ludden said. “It allows the training farmer to operate on that land and build upon their business plan.” The incubator aspect of the training attracted Booker, who is one of nine students participating in the program this year. She moved to Albuquerque from Rhode Island and is hoping to learn how to make farming a full-time job during her retirement.
“I believe that farming, in a variety of capacities, is something that you can do long past normal retirement age. It just depends on what you choose to focus on,” Booker said.
She is considering a diverse range of potentially marketable activities including keeping bees, small livestock for fiber, and culinary and medicinal herbs.