This week's new Restaurant Guide celebrates Santa Fe's booming and diverse culinary scene. (See SFReporter.com/pickup for how to find it.) But the city's relationship with food doesn't stop with its restaurants. This week, SFR also takes a look at a handful of the many local people, businesses and organizations whose work centers on innovating in the food and agriculture sector. That diverse area extends beyond eating into an entire ecosystem of growing, delivering and monitoring foods, and addresses the ways agriculture connects to social and ecological considerations. The future of food might summon visions of robots in commercial kitchens and waiting tables, but in Santa Fe, the forward-thinkers are less interested in automation and more concerned with creating sustainable models which, in many cases, take cues from the past.
Local for Life
Nina Yozell-Epstein founded her business Squash Blossom in 2015, but the 34-year-old had begun, she says, "to incubate" the work seven years prior when she worked in the nonprofit sector, specifically on the former Santa Fe Alliance's Buy Local campaign that helped educate consumers about the health and economic benefits of eating locally sourced food.
"We were educating the general public about wanting to spend an extra buck on an egg at a café and educating the chefs about that business potential," she says. "There's this very economic translation to how long food can last when you buy it fresh, and so you're not coming in from the Sysco truck with half your order not being even viable to use."
After the Santa Fe Alliance folded, Yozell-Epstein took the program to another nonprofit called Farm to Table, and continued to establish the framework of what would become a viable business of wholesaling local food and products to restaurants. "It did take years of explaining … and testing the market and making sure people were interested. And after a while of doing that, from 2008 until 2014, [it started becoming] less educational and more transactional." By 2014, she recognized she was "literally selling food to restaurants and facilitating this process of distributing it," and was "ready to stand on my own and start Squash Blossom."
Squash Blossom began as a wholesale distributor of local products from farms to restaurants—approximately 30 local farms and nearly two dozen restaurants. Yozell-Epstein has a long-term relationship with the Santa Fe Farmers Market—she previously served on its board and is now a vendor with her partner Mathew Ladegaard for Ground Stone Farm. Squash Blossom has since expanded to individual retail sales called Blossom Bags for residents who want to buy local food for weekly pickup. Customers can choose their selections online and then pick them up weekly from distribution points (Squash Blossom also offers workplace subscriptions). Choices include seasonal produce as well as value-added products created by local farmers such as jams, pickles and kimchi. Shoppers also can buy locally roasted coffee and eggs.
In year two, the business was one of three recipients of the 2016 City of Santa Fe's Mayor's Sustainability Award for Food Security. This year, Squash Blossom was named the city's Small Business of the Year, and also received the Small Business Administration's New Mexico Home-Based Business of the Year designation.
While Yozell-Epstein started Squash Blossom after seeing its viability as a business, her motivation resides in her belief on the importance of local food in a sustainable future. When she was starting the business and participating in business incubators, she says someone asked her what "problem" she was trying to solve with Squash Blossom. "Name a problem that local food doesn't solve," she says, noting that her company provides reliable income for farmers and easy access to healthy food for customers.
"I started Squash Blossom and all this work because I feel, in a more and more unstable future, as far as temperature and nature and politics and everything, it gets unnerving and local food really feels like an empowering solution to me," she says. "It feels like as long as we can support and maintain small-scale farmers, then we have a radical independence and an opportunity for health and strength in our community and our economy and our land." Facilitating relationships between local farmers, restaurants and consumers also pushes back against corporate food distribution models such as Amazon or Blue Apron. "Squash Blossom is based on relationships, and that's something New Mexico is based on. You can't scale that. Amazon can't replace this. We have a strength and a sovereignty in our how small we are and how local we are and how tight these webs of communication are."
On the Road
MoGro Mobile Grocery originally launched in response to a specific need articulated in 2011 by Santo Domingo Pueblo in community discussions regarding barriers to healthy living. Access to healthy food emerged as a clear need. The initiative, originally launched in 2010 by philanthropists Rick and Beth Schnieders through their work with the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health in Albuquerque, began as a mobile grocery store making weekly visits to that pueblo as well as San Felipe, Cochiti, Laguna, San Ildefonso and Jemez. Today, the project (mogro.net) is run by Santa Fe Community Foundation in partnership with a variety of organizations including the Hopkins Center, Roadrunner Food Bank, La Montañita Co-op and La Familia Medical Center, as well as several Pueblo organizations.
Rebecca Baran-Rees, the food, agriculture and sustainability program officer for the Santa Fe Community Foundation, works as project director for MoGro.
"It's moved from being essentially a mobile grocery service that would visit just these rural communities, the majority of which were tribal, to now serving a broader array of communities that are scattered further across different geographies," she says, noting that MoGro serves Albuquerque and surrounding areas, as well as Santa Fe, with hopes to continue expanding further north. Food delivery takes place at partnership sites, such as La Familia Medical Center and Santa Fe Indian Hospital. Distribution happens with the help of "community champions" who are either hired by the program or are already on staff at clinics and whose "work is also about healthy eating and prevention," she says. "So it's a nice alignment. … The community champions are really there doing outreach and community building components" while the food is there for delivery.
MoGro's work also includes nutritional education and cooking classes, and it is piloting a recipe program as well. A recent shift in the program included creating a sliding-scale price structure so that its weekly deliveries also are available to higher-income families.
"Previously we'd just been driven to do food access because so many families in New Mexico are food insecure," Baran-Rees says. But making the project financially sustainable also is a goal, as is understanding and responding to issues beyond access as limitations to healthy eating.
"Food behavior is such a complex system," she says, "Not only is it driven by the question of how do we access our food, [but also]: Is it healthy, is it culturally relevant and reflective of my values, do I have time to cook it, are these things my kids want to eat? When we think about how to help more families live healthier lives and eat the things they want to eat it, involves … much more than just having better food access and having the food show up. It can't just be that alone." That's why, even in its earliest incarnation, MoGro also incorporated classes and activities. "Those have been really consistent since the beginning in part because it was so clear … how important they were."
Many of the questions MoGro tackles in its work are similar to ones Baran-Rees, 34, considered in her graduate work at Cornell University in city and regional planning, where alternative service delivery models were a consideration for community planning in rural areas.
"The questions that felt omnipresent for a lot of social services were how do we serve the people who need these resources … and how can cities and counties invest in infrastructure to [create] … equitable access." Similarly with food systems, "people live far from healthy food places, so what does equity mean in that context? How can we create better structures that will enable more families who need and deserve and should be able to live a healthy life, but are essentially priced out?"
Chances are you've heard of spirulina, currently enjoying the spotlight as a popular superfood and nutritional cure-all. But even food-trend skeptics (sorry, coconut oil) will have trouble questioning this blue-green algae's ancient credentials.
"It's 3.5 billion years old," says Apogee Spirulina founder Nicholas Petrović. "It's been around for a while."
Petrović was introduced to spirulina more recently, when he moved to Santa Fe from San Francisco in 2009, specifically to attend Santa Fe Community College. It had the only program in the country offering what Petrović was looking for at the time in terms of photovoltaic training.
But once enrolled in the dynamic School of Trades, Advanced Technologies and Sustainability, Petrović's interest shifted during a course in which students learned how to produce algae as a step toward working in the algal biofuels sector. "I had never heard of this stuff before," Petrović says, "And I thought, 'This is really cool. This is low-hanging fruit.'"
From there, he says, "I ended up killing thousands of gallons of it figuring out how to grow it." His research led him to become interested in France's artisanal spirulina culture. He wrote to leaders in the field there, received a list of growers and, after graduating from SFCC in 2012, traveled to Aubagne, France, and spent the summer interning with a master spirulina farmer in order to learn the art of cultivation. "Twenty-five years ago, there were maybe about three; but now there are over 200 of them in France, Spain and Italy, these little micro artisan cultivation farms, which is great."
Petrović returned home and began the work of setting up his own high-desert artisan spirulina farm. The college supported his endeavors and, with the help of its board and former SFCC President Randy Grissom, the entrepreneur in 2013 founded his business. Today, Apogee Spirulina, using the cultivation and harvesting methods Petrović learned in France, includes greenhouses totaling approximately 5,500 square feet on the SFCC campus. The small greenhouses reduce water evaporation, and also provides a cleaner environment that eliminates the need for any type of pesticide.
Petrović, 51, says he considers himself a "protein farmer" rather than a spirulina farmer. "The big thing with spirulina is it's 64 percent protein," he says. "That's why vegans love it; that, and the iron level and calcium. It's a complete food source, easily digestible, we don't waste any of it." Forbes Magazine last June profiled scientists from the food to climate to energy sectors all predicting that algae would play a key role in their various areas in the future.
Petrović also believes spirulina will be key in agriculture's future. Agriculture in its current form, he says, "isn't sustainable." His footprint, on the other hand, from water use to energy, is small. "That's the future of food," he says. "Small-scale community-based farming … within a few miles of the center of town."
In addition to the benefits for the environment, Petrović notes that the French farmers with whom he trained have humanitarian context for their work; many, he says, work in Africa during their off months helping set up community farms. "It's feeding humanity," he says, noting that in New Mexico, "food insecurity is a big deal" and that is a motivator. At the same time, he says, "I'd like to make a living at this too. I think you can balance the two. I think it's doable."
Petrović has a retail business through his website (apogeespirulina.com) and the Santa Fe Farmers Market, as well as a wholesale business. His company also is developing recipes using spirulina. Much of Petrović's work also includes educating the public; a workshop he ran last summer drew spirulina enthusiasts from around the US, as well as from Australia. Petrović also teaches classes at SFCC. His work with spirulina is one part of the program where he earned his degree, which also includes courses on aquaponics farming—a combination of fish farming and horticulture—previously featured in SFR and taught by Charlie Shultz, with whom Petrović collaborates. The environment of SFCC's School of Trades, Advanced Technologies and Sustainability has definitely helped foster creating opportunity for locally grown food. "It's been tremendous," Petrović says. "We're at the cutting edge here in Santa Fe."
Thinking Like a Biospherian
"The shift to a regenerative and healing relationship with our biosphere will improve our well-being," writes Mark Nelson in his 2018 book, Pushing Our Limits: Insights from Biosphere 2. He continues: "'Nature deficit disorder' in our increasingly urbanized world perhaps explains why so many people find their lives unsatisfying. Something is missing."
Nelson was one of eight crew members from 1991 to 1993 living in Biosphere 2 (Biosphere 1 being the Earth itself), a closed-ecological system including representative material from all different parts of the world (from bonsai rainforest to oceanic coral reef). The scientists on board lived in a 3-acre world with both farming and technology, and aimed to discover what was known and what needed to be known about the world's biosphere; specifically, how to create greater harmony between people and ecological systems. Today Nelson is the chairman of the Institute of Ecotechnics, founded in New Mexico in 1973 (it also has UK offices).
The institute's many initiatives include its home base, Synergia Ranch, located off Highway 14, which has operated since 1969 and is both an organic farm with hundreds of fruit trees and vegetables, as well as a retreat center and host for various innovative projects. Many of these projects were ahead of their time when they began decades ago, and remain forward-thinking in their goals to gather information, educate and experiment with reversing the damage already done to the planet.
Nelson explains the ranch ethos as stemming from Lewis Mumford's 1934 book Technics & Civilization, which called for a new stage in the relationship between technology and civilization, so-called biotechnics, which Nelson tells SFR is "a technology that was much more sensitive to, responsive to and compatible with human life." Synergia Ranch founders took that word and created the term ecotechnics to describe its mission of reversing "this complete disharmony we have between the technosphere and the biosphere that nurtures us and enriches our spirits and our bodies."
"The goal was to reverse human history and, sadly, a lot of it can be summarized as 'deserts are the footsteps of civilization,'" Nelson says. "Our overarching goal at Synergia Ranch was, 'Let's reverse that; let's make an oasis in the desert.'"
The work on the ranch has been a combination of old-fashioned farming and progressive experimentation. More than 1,000 trees have been planted since the beginning. Soil restoration has been a major focus with decades of work to improve the soil through remediation of the damage done by erosion. The ranch includes a geodesic dome, yurt and workshop spaces. A variety of organizations partner with or use the space in fields ranging from ecology to sustainable forestry to book publishing (the institute also has an ocean research vessel, The Heraclitus). The working farm, which is certified organic, sells its wares at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, and also hosts volunteers (the ranch is part of the WWOOF, a worldwide organic farm volunteer organization).
"We see this as open-ended and continuing effort to restore the wealth of the ecology that was originally here," Nelson, 71, says. And despite the challenges facing the world, he says he remains optimistic. "We're all survivors," he says. "Our genes have come through billions of years of evolution."
The Big Picture
While many local food pioneers take a hands-on approach, the agriculture work at Descartes Labs (descarteslabs.com) applies a broader view. The broadest view, really. The company's work centers on using machine learning applied to data sets to create predictive models in various sectors. Agriculture is one of them. By using and analyzing satellite imagery, the company is able to predict crop performance.
"With satellites I can see every field everywhere in the US or in the world every day," Descartes cofounder Tim Kelton says. "I can hire 1,000 people or 10,000 people and have them try to drive and take a sample, and we're still not going to get all the fields everywhere; it's not a human-scale problem."
Kelton, who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory for 15 years before cofounding Descartes, approaches the work with his computing background. "We're not agronomists," he says. "We've just taken massive amounts of data and pulled it in and figured out ways to build models and iterate on those models as quickly as we can."
The company began the agricultural modeling in summer 2015; its first models were for corn production. Since then, it's expanded to many crops and many different geographies. Being able to provide more and better information about crop yields has a variety of important applications, he says. "The earlier you can detect too much or not as much food being grown in certain regions of the country, then you can think of all the supply chain follow-ups. … Most of the grain grown in the US is actually exported. … Follow that supply chain, you have international ships shipping it all over the world, you have barges in the Mississippi, you have rail capacity that has to get leased or procured, and you need to know, 'Do they need to go to northern Iowa or western Oklahoma?' So the better visibility you get into that, that's going to affect that entire set of supply chain, and all the costs will eventually go to the consumer one way or the other."
From the get-go, Descartes has been successful with its models; one of its clients from the beginning, Kelton says, is Cargill, a large agriculture commodities company.
The implications can extend beyond just the financial in other parts of the world, where countries might not have the equivalent of the United States Department of Agriculture for historical and contemporary data.
In one case, Descartes worked on a program for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), one of the US Department of Defense's agencies investigating food shortage in northern Africa. "The food shortage was looked at as a leading indicator into Arab Spring," he says. "So you can see much bigger implications in other parts of the world; here it's Albertson's raised the price for cereal, but there it potentially is causing much greater effects." The satellite work, Kelton believes, will be useful to farmers and businesses, but also for humanitarian purposes. "If you can early-detect better that this part of the world is going to be short in food or water or something that's measurable, the quicker you might be in getting aid there or at least make that information available in an earlier time frame to international organizations."