On a warm evening in early June, a group of two dozen young growers gathered at Wildharber Farm just south of Española for a brainstorming and listening session hosted by the Northern New Mexico Chapter of the Young Farmers Coalition. The volunteer organization advocates at both the state and the national level for policies that support young, small independent farmers and ranchers.
"What are the biggest barriers for you thriving as a farmer in New Mexico?" an organizer asked those assembled in the yard. As the conversation spilled into the evening, it became clear that small farms across the region share many of the same fundamental barriers to greater success and profitability.
"We need to reevaluate regulations around getting value-added products on the market," one farmer told the group, "and we need more shared infrastructure, pack sheds, trucks, processing places where you can use tools like those $30,000 wash tables—that's nice equipment, state of the art, but I would never be able to afford that."
Value-added products can significantly increase the profitability of small farms, yet for many of the farmers gathered that night, breaking into the market is a dream that remains far out of reach.
They are not alone. Researchers at New Mexico State University have identified a shortage in processing facilities and distribution as the two main obstacles to the growth of the local agriculture industry, costing the state millions if not billions of dollars a year in potential revenue.
For Santa Fe entrepreneur Kelly Egolf, this problem is also an opportunity. Egolf, the founder of food and beverage company Verde, says that her most recent venture, New Mexico Fresh Foods, will bring an ultramodern high-pressure processing facility to Santa Fe that has the potential to greatly expand the market.
New Mexico is a state fueled by traditional agriculture that historically exported value-added products. Yet over the last half-century many meat, grain, and vegetable processing facilities shut down. Today, over half of registered agricultural operations in the state are small family owned farms and ranches, yet 97% of New Mexico's agricultural products leave the state for processing such as the cold pasteurization which will be offered at the new facility, and the state spends $4 billion annually to import food products. This drains the pockets of our agricultural economies, according to NMSU.
New momentum is brewing behind the revival of traditional agricultural industries in Northern New Mexico. A new generation of young farmers are returning to diversified, sustainable farming practices. Local governments and non-profits are in the first stages of developing a network of supports for local food production, and Egolf hopes this can lead the way.
"My goal is to foster and invigorate a local food economy," Egolf tells SFR. "But it's really about collaboration. It's a concerted effort by many public officials and non-profits to invest in local food. We are in somewhat of a resurgence of our local food economy, and it's going to be amazing."
Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber favors the plan.
"What this project does is to create a center of innovation to capture more of the value from the hard work of producing fruits and vegetables and livestock and by processing them more completely here. That value will stay here in Santa Fe and in New Mexico," he tells SFR.
Over the first decade, the facility expects to process nearly 500 million pounds of fresh food products, generating $2.5 billion of gross revenue for other food producers.
High-pressure processing is a technology that uses chemical-free, cold pressure pasteurization techniques to preserve pre-packaged and prepared raw foods such as salsa, guacamole, hummus and bacon. It can extend the shelf life of products 10 to 30 times, allowing a product like pesto, for example, to stay on the shelf for up to 90 days.
Even products produced in New Mexico's commercial kitchens cannot legally be sold at grocery stores or across state lines unless they are further preserved through pasteurization, chemical additives, fermentation or high-pressure processing. This means that most small producers of fresh food products can only sell directly at farmers markets.
There are only 30 HPP facilities open to small producers in the US, and none in the Southwest. New Mexico Fresh Foods will allow small, local producers to get their products onto store shelves for the very first time.
The company will not close the gap for small farmers struggling to get past the first hurdles of producing value added food items. However, there are other players making efforts towards bridging this gap.
New Mexico Fresh Foods has partnered with the Santa Fe Community College to create a workforce training program. Camilla Bustamante, a SFCC dean whose departments include sustainability, professional studies and business, says part of the college's long-term ambition is to develop a regional business accelerator for food production that will involve partnering with commercial kitchen facilities in Santa Fe and at Northern New Mexico College.