"We want to raise our cattle right, from birth to grave," says Tommy Casados, proprietor of C4 Farms, one of several grass-fed meat vendors at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. Amid the busy scene of the Saturday market at the Railyard, Casados can be found at a booth indoors, handing out tasty samples of cured meats to customers ambling through the crowded hall. He cares deeply about the quality of his meat and about his impact on the land, using rotational grazing methods to manage both.
Times are good for this Northern New Mexico rancher. Last year alone he sold over 1,300 pounds of beef at farmers markets in Santa Fe and Albuquerque and through direct orders from the C4 Farms website, and his business is growing. This spring, Casados received a Local Economic Development Act grant from the New Mexico Economic Development Department to build a meat processing facility on the family land in the Chama Valley. The new venture will turn slaughtered livestock into value-added products such as sausage and jerky. It could be a game-changer for his own business, and—if done right—for dozens of other livestock producers across the northern half of the state as well.
At present, Casados sends his livestock to a facility in Colorado, nearly 90 miles away. It is notoriously challenging to get meat processed in New Mexico, because there simply aren't many facilities that are federally licensed to do so. The only facility in the state that is federally licensed to handle slaughter, processing, and value-added products for all kinds of livestock is in Moriarty, twice the distance for Casados.
When he realized how many other local ranchers and farmers shipped their cattle across state lines, Casados saw a golden opportunity to open a new facility offering custom services to local ranchers in Northern New Mexico and create new jobs in his own rural community.
But Mike Minifie, owner of the Western Way Custom Meat in Moriarty, tells SFR by phone that there's a reason so few facilities exist in the state.
"It's an extremely difficult business," says Minifie. "It's very expensive and it takes a level of expertise that is hard to come by these days."
It's also a regulatory issue.
Minifie tells warning tales of old-timers whose establishments were shuttered when they failed federal inspection after the certification process was taken over by the USDA nearly a decade ago, and of newcomers who threw hundreds of thousands of dollars at new facilities only to go broke in the process. In the meantime, his own facility has hardly been able to keep up with demand, and is currently in the process of expanding.
Casados estimates that he has already invested $400,000. But he has help from many people who are invested in his success, including the state Economic Development Office Cabinet Secretary Alicia Keyes, who spoke last week to a gathering of friends, family and county and state officials who met to celebrate the new initiative.
"This is an amazing opportunity, but it's also an incredible model for what we can do in value added agriculture," said Keyes, speaking of the importance of supporting local family-owned businesses and creating jobs in rural communities, especially in the agricultural sector.
With the $75,000 economic development grant, Casados plans to have his facility up and running by September with the capacity to process around 45,000 pounds of beef a year, and around 500 to 600 head of wild game. Looking ahead, Casados hopes to open a slaughterhouse onsite as well, allowing C4 farms to complete the entire production cycle locally, from the birth of his calves to the sale of the final product.
Casados says keeping the entire process local is an important part of supporting a sustainable local agriculture industry. This passion has motivated Casados' endeavor from the beginning.
Casados studied range science at New Mexico State University, then worked for many years as a range management specialist and soil conservationist with the USDA. C4 Farms employs methods such as rotational grazing that restore ecosystem health over time by capturing nutrients and carbon in the soil. Healthy soil reduces erosion and helps recharge groundwater. The methods have recently been recognized by the USDA and as the most effective way for the agricultural sector to address carbon emissions and address global warming.
Rotational grazing takes a greater number of smaller pastures, more fencing, and more manpower than other methods, and it also takes about four to eight months longer to get cattle to a finished weight. But Casados says it is worth it; the growing demand for sustainably raised beef is making it more and more profitable.
"Especially at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, we get a lot of people asking how we raise our cattle and how we graze, and it's all with that ecological stewardship in mind," he says. "It's very important to maintain the land so that it continues to be agriculturally viable for future generations. Of course you gotta be able to make money doing it, otherwise it's not really sustainable either. … It's always about the balance."