Going with the Grain: New Mexico Organic Wheat Cooperative Provides Lift to Farmers, Rural Economy
Merlo, Catherine, Rural Cooperatives
Every day, 200 to 300 customers line up at the Cloud Cliff Bakery and Card in Santa Fe, N.M. They come to dine on the popular eatery's cinnamon rolls, the roasted ancho chile rellenos, the strong coffee. But mostly they come for the bread.
The crunchy sourdough loaves are made by hand and baked daily on a stone hearth, giving the bread a flavor similar to that cooked in a wood-fired oven. Known as artisan bread, the dough is made from water, salt, yeast and a special organic wheat flour. Cloud Cliffs specialty, is "Pan Nativo," Spanish for native bread.
Pan Nativo has been Cloud Cliff's best-selling product for several years, accounting for up to half of Cloud Cliff's wholesale income. The flour it's made from is high in protein and gluten, and it comes from one place only: the organic wheat fields of the Sangre de Cristo Agricultural Producers Cooperative.
Co-op helps boost rural incomes
One hundred miles north of Santa Fe, along the New Mexico-Colorado border, members of the Sangre de Cristo Agricultural Producers Cooperative have just planted their 11th grain crop. From September's expected harvest, they hope to produce a record crop of more than 400,000 pounds of organic wheat, which will be milled into flour and sold to local bakeries and restaurants like Cloud Cliff.
The co-op has come a long way since it was formed in 1995 with help from New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. Organized to improve economics and reintroduce grain production in the sparsely populated Costilla Valley, the co-op has done more than revive local wheat farming. It has boosted incomes and hope in rural Taos County, where the median household income is less than $27,000 per year and nearly 21 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Unlike the co-op's early years, when members irrigated their fields from ditch systems (or acequias), the nine current co-op members now water most of their fields with a center pivot. They've also learned to use modern tractors and combines, with assistance from Costilla and Questa.
Flour mill adds value to crop
The co-op has also just purchased its own whole-wheat flour mill (albeit used). Now, instead of paying to have someone else mill their wheat, they add value to their crop by grinding and bagging it themselves. They've seen production rise from 60,000 pounds the first year, and watched their co-op's revenues climb to $100,000 last year.
But what hasn't changed is the coop's commitment to organic, chemical-free, wheat production. It's proved to be a bonanza for the tiny co-op. Each month, it sells 18,000 pounds of organic wheat flour, including 10,000 pounds to Cloud Cliff, its best customer.
"We chose to produce and sell an organic product because that's what's happening all through this area," says co-op president Gonzalo Gallegos, who farms 40 of the co-op's 120 acres near Questa. "Much of this land had been fallow for so long, and people had never used chemicals on it. Our water comes directly from the mountains. What better place could there be to grow organic?"
By offering a locally grown organic product, the co-op enjoys a profitable niche market. Organic wheat here sells for 11.6 cents a pound, compared with about 3.3 cents a pound for conventionally grown wheat. The co-op mills all of its wheat into organic flour, which is sold to New Mexico customers at 30 cents a pound. After deducting production, operating and transportation expenses, co-op members earn a net profit of 16.6 cents a pound for their organic wheat flour.
"That's more than five times the amount conventional growers earn selling wheat on the open market," says Del Jimenez, agricultural specialist for New Mexico University's Cooperative Extension Service.
Jimenez has worked with the co-op, named after the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains, from its beginning. …