Authors’ note: It’s been a cold winter so far in New Mexico. A ski mountain just north of Santa Fe gave the country its coldest reading, 20 below, one day in early January. A few nights of sub-zero temperatures at lower elevations may have set back the bark beetles’ devastating march just enough to give some trees another year or two of life, if they’re lucky. A plunging mercury has kept me close to the woodstove and far from national travels. But this will change soon as I rejoin the speaking and training circuit for what I anticipate will be yet another series of encounters that will certainly add to my astonishment. In the meantime, this much coveted period of staying close to home has given me a chance to write and reflect on what’s going on in my own backyard. The post that follows originally appeared in the Greenfire Times, a great statewide alternative rag that devoted its entire December issue to New Mexico’s food movement. A future post or two will spotlight some of the food and farm policy advocacy that is now underway at our state legislature. After that? We’ll just have to see what adds to my astonishment!
“I’d be dead if it wasn’t for my neighbors,” was the way Genevieve Humenay acknowledged the most important tool in her rural survival toolbox. You can be smart, resourceful and even courageous, but when something goes really wrong and you live in sections of Cibola County, New Mexico where many services are 50 miles away, it could take a long time for the cavalry to ride to your rescue. Just ask the residents of Queens and Staten Island, New York standing neck-deep in Hurricane Sandy’s rising waters. Who were the first people to snatch them from the jaws of doom? Their neighbors.
Genevieve is one of 183 members of the El Morro Valley Cooperative fighting to restore some health and vigor to what can only be described as a rural food desert. There are vast tracks of the county where residents must drive 100 miles round-trip to get to a supermarket, which at the IRS-approved motor vehicle rate of 55 cents per mile, adds $55 to one’s weekly food purchases. Yes, there are supermarkets in Grants at Cibola’s northern border, but going south from there are only a few small stores scattered across a county nearly twice the size of the state of Delaware. And unfortunately, those stores are limited in selection and fresh produce, and high in price.
Heading down Highway 53 from Grants, I could see why this might not be prime supermarket territory. The scenery was spectacular, but there weren’t many people – six per square mile according to the U.S. Census – and though there was no official count, the elk were so numerous they would certainly rule if only they could vote.
Given this limited marketplace, it’s no surprise that Albertsons and Whole Foods are not tripping over themselves to open stores in the El Morro Valley. It would take a crafty merchant to make a buck in a place where humans are few and far between, and where the customer base is surprisingly diverse. A Mormon community known for its frugality and the enviable practice of producing and storing their own food, three different Native American tribes – Acoma, Zuni, and the Ramah Navajo Band – and an assortment of back-to-the-landers, urban transplants and multi-generational ranchers presents a “market basket” that would challenge the merchandising skills of the most able grocer. For these reasons and more, the good food enthusiasts of the El Morro Valley realized early in their quest that the food cavalry was not likely to show up anytime soon.
“We feel like this is a community where we can work together,” was how Kate Brown, the Coop’s president, addressed the 25 people in attendance at a recent membership meeting. Glasses perched on the tip of her nose and a rich, brown braid draped over her right shoulder, by both demeanor and tone she reminded me of one of my favorite high school science teachers, an occupation she has indeed pursued. Kate’s pitch to her fellow cooperators was less about brick and mortar achievements – the Coop does not yet have a building of its own – and more about the ties that bind a people who are working toward a common purpose.
Yes, they have a farmers’ market in Ramah, and the Coop has organized a “buying alliance” which pools household orders for a monthly pick up in Albuquerque. But in the way that baseball players throw balls and swing bats before the game, these activities are merely warm-ups for the big contest of cooperation that lies ahead. As Kate made it clear, how well they cooperate as a community will ultimately determine how successful they are as a coop business.
In spite of Margaret Mead’s much quoted pep-talk to “never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world,” the El Morro Coop knew that commitment alone would not be enough. They knew they didn’t have all the skills, connections or capacity to organize a corporation, set-up bookkeeping systems, or seek the loans and grants they would need to establish a good food store in the Valley. They realized early on that they needed a little help from their friends.
The good news for those who want to cooperate is that there’s no lack of those who will cooperate with you. El Morro reached out to the well-established La Montanita Co-op in Albuquerque as well as the Dixon Co-op, about 25 miles south of Taos, whose story of a struggling, up-by-the-bootstraps rural community food store matched their own. They tapped into the U.S. Department of Agriculture and New Mexico State University’s Arrowhead Center, which provides small business planning assistance. But it was probably their relationship with the Santa Fe-based non-profit organization, Farm to Table that yielded the most fruit.
What Farm to Table does is capacity building, a term that’s wormed its way into the lexicon of non-profit and government agencies. It’s best understood by thinking how you might instruct someone in a skill they don’t yet command. You can extend the idea further to include the sharing of your list of resources and colleagues with someone so that they can also benefit. It’s this attitude of empowerment – me sharing my power with you – that best describes the relationship between Farm to Table and organizations like the El Morro Valley Coop (see sidebars).
Farm to Table began working with the El Morro community in 2010 to enable them to formally establish a coop corporation. In the process of doing this, they helped the new members sort out their dreams which included a bakery, a livestock slaughtering and processing facility, a community farm, and a hub for the gathering and distribution of locally produced food. The business options and models were nearly as numerous as the ideas for making their little corner of New Mexico bloom. They could buy an existing store, build a new store from scratch, lease a building and convert it to a store, or work with the small stores now operating in Cibola County to expand and improve their limited selection.
You could say it was a rich moment of “stormin’ and normin’” that needed some structure and focus. Farm to Table was able to channel the members’ energy to evaluate the options and assess their relative strengths and weaknesses.
To help the Coop make the best business decisions, Farm to Table connected El Morro to NMSU’s Arrowhead Center. The resulting business plan gave the Coop a road map for how to purchase the Lewis Trading Post in Ramah and operate it as their long sought after coop store. Farm to Table also helped them prepare an application to USDA’s Rural Business Enterprise Grant which was later approved. Equipped with a feasibility study, business plan, and community survey, the Coop was now prepared to choose.
What did all of this preparation and analyses show? After reviewing the menu of choices it was clear that there were several ways to increase the availability of good food for the Valley’s residents. The survey data found that the community was generally supportive of a number of these options and could be counted on as “a receptive market and customer base.” The so-called “Cadillac” option, buying the Lewis Trading Post and operating it as a coop, was feasible but expensive.
While the members were warmed by the prospect of owning their own store, they nearly froze in their tracks when they heard the price tag – $750,000 – a number that one member characterized as “staggering.” To make that deal work, not only would coop members have to come up with $200,000 of their own equity, they would have to operate the Trading Post at a higher sales volume and/or better margin than it was currently operating.
What emerged from all the culling and mulling was a hybrid solution that was not only innovative but perhaps embodied the best ideals of the wider El Morro Valley. The Coop has dubbed the idea “Coop Corners,” which, in its simplest form, utilizes the county’s six existing small stores as satellite mini-coops. These stores would receive weekly deliveries of natural food items, fresh produce, and locally produced food from the El Morro Valley Coop. The Coop, in turn, would pool the orders of these stores to achieve enough buying power to purchase and receive goods from the region’s larger suppliers. The start-up and operating costs are low, there’s no need for a fixed wholesale or retail site, and perhaps most important, Coop Corners builds on what’s already there.
The elegance of the solution lies in the last point – it supports local businesses which gives it the potential to reach a larger market share while building on the Coop’s biggest asset: community and cooperation. While Coop Corners is not quite shovel-ready, it is the choice that garnered the most enthusiasm at the November member meeting.
“We want better quality food. That’s the big motivator for us,” was how Genevieve represented her community’s most fervent wish.. In effect, the people of the El Morro Valley are expressing the same desires that have driven millions of American consumers away from the processed, one-size-fits-all industrial food system to one that offers food that is good tasting, has a known place of origin, and respects human and environmental health. And what’s more – and unlike most of us – the people of this valley are willing to struggle for what they want, take personal and financial risks, and blow the rallying bugle of “cooperation” to achieve what the retail food industry has failed to do across rural America.