‘Buying Local’ Not So Easy

‘Buying Local’ Not So Easy

'It freezes here, and you’re not going to have everything you want coming from New Mexico. It’s just not going to happen' - Organic farmer Monte Skarsgard

Not Enough Local Organic Vegetables to Go Around

BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI

It’s a mantra often heard from purists and others in the organic and local food movements: Always buy organic and local.

The idea is that buying organic fruits, vegetables and other products will result in better health for humans and the land. Organic farmers and ranchers use natural methods to raise crops and livestock, as opposed to synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and feed.

And when individuals, stores, restaurants and food co-ops buy from local producers, they support those producers and help build the local and state economies.

But while that philosophy might make for good sound bites, the reality is that it’s impossible for stores, restaurants and co-ops to feed us solely with locally grown or organic produce.

New Mexico’s organic food production, while increasing, is minuscule. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, New Mexico’s 90 certified organic farms and ranches grew just 268 acres of certified organic vegetables or grains last year.

Just 21 farms in New Mexico grew certified organic tomatoes in the open on a combined total of eight acres last year. Production totaled 20,100 pounds. Eight farms grew three acres of organic lettuce, for a total of 34,200 pounds. Sales for both totaled $148,045.

It’s the same for cabbage and carrots: Four farms grew a combined total of two acres of organic cabbage for a harvest of 18,000 pounds, and thirteen farms grew a total of three acres of organic carrots for a harvest of 15,000 pounds.

The USDA’s Certified Organic Survey, which was released in late September, surveyed only certified organic producers in the 50 states. The report details production and sales of individual vegetables and fruits, but it also has a broad category called “Other Vegetables,” which accounts for small farmers who might plant as little as four rows of corn or tomatoes, said Longino Bustillos, New Mexico statistician for the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the USDA. In New Mexico, production of those other vegetables totaled 1.1 million pounds, yielding sales of $1.5 million.

If you do the arithmetic and divide the combined weight of New Mexico’s annual harvest of organic carrots, cabbage, lettuce and tomatoes by the FDA-recommended daily serving of 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables, you’d get 56,186 servings. With about 2 million people in the state, each person in the state would receive no more than half an ounce per year of New Mexico-grown cabbage, carrots, lettuce and tomatoes.

Not so local

Monte Skarsgard, owner of the organically certified 40-acre Skarsgard Farms near Albuquerque, said it isn’t possible to always get locally grown organic food, or even locally grown conventional produce.

“We really have to push our customers to be realistic about the local food movement,” Skarsgard said. “It freezes here, and you’re not going to have everything you want coming from New Mexico. It’s just not going to happen.”

Martha Whitman, a consultant who works with food co-ops and who has been involved in Albuquerque’s La Montañita Co-op for more than 30 years, said the co-op can’t stock the shelves of its six stores year-round with locally grown, certified organic produce. For one, local produce is seasonal – plus, New Mexico farmers are subject to the whims of nature. A hot, dry summer this year hurt production, Whitman said.

Stephanie Walker, a vegetable specialist with New Mexico State University, said New Mexico is “a long way from having enough organic-certified land to keep all the consumers in New Mexico – not to mention those outside of New Mexico – eating only organics.”

Vicki Pozzebon, founder of Delicious New Mexico, an organization that helps local food processors grow and market their products, said New Mexico’s climate and demographics work against buying local.

“We have a short growing season in Northern New Mexico, we are an enormous state and have trucking and distribution problems, and we have seasonality issues,” Pozzebon said. “Stores are sourcing from small farms – maybe an average of 2.5 acres each in Northern New Mexico. Our farmers are aging out and getting old, and trying to find young farmers who can make a return on investment is becoming harder and harder.”

This all means that if New Mexico stores and restaurants want to carry organic vegetables, they have to import them. California was the nation’s largest producer of organic food in 2015 with 790,000 acres under production and $2.4 billion in sales. Compare that to New Mexico, where the total for all ranch and farm products of all types – organic and non-organic – was $3.7 billion – most of that coming from non-organic milk.

Certification

In the eyes of the government and of buyers for grocery stores, any produce that doesn’t carry the organic-certified label is “conventional” produce. To call their produce organic, farmers go through the process of being certified by their states or USDA-accredited organizations. Certification in New Mexico costs $200 per year, plus a fee of 0.75 percent of gross sales. It also involves yearly audits of sales and growing practices.

Some producers say they can’t justify the cost of certification and declined to get certified because of the arduousness of the process. But just because a farm isn’t certified as organic doesn’t mean that its food hasn’t been organically grown: Many farmers, including those who sell at the 75 farmers’ markets in the state, do meet organic requirements, but haven’t undergone the certification process, said Denise Miller, executive director of the New Mexico Farmers’ Marketing Association. For many customers at farmers’ markets, it’s more important that the produce be locally grown than it is that it be certified organic.

“The organic label is less important when you are selling directly to the customer,” Miller said. “It’s very different than having a jam on a store shelf that is labeled organic. A lot of our growers are pesticide-free and they engage in healthy growing practices, but they may not have become certified organic.”

 Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Press Weekly. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.