First off, I’m not sure if Randy Cruz’s Cruz Ranch in Sapello, New Mexico is the region’s biggest egg producer. Clawing my way through USDA’s 2017 Agriculture Statistics seems to suggest that out of the state’s 2,848 farms that reported raising poultry, the Cruz Ranch was easily in the top ten. What I do know is that turning 70 hilly acres in Northern New Mexico into a commercial egg-laying operation was an uphill climb requiring love, intelligence, and money. What I also learned is that staying in business takes blood, guts, and more money.
Take the night in early October last year when there were about 2,700 laying hens and an assortment of ducks, turkeys, geese, and peacocks tucked safely into their coops when Randy went to bed. When he woke the next morning, the number of birds had plummeted to 1500. The scene that greeted him was one of carnage as nearly 1200 birds lay dead and dismembered about the coops and yard. He didn’t need to gather any forensic evidence to determine that this was not the work of coyotes. The nonsensical killing had been committed by his neighbor’s four German shepherds that had tunneled under the yard’s fence.
The Cruz Ranch story started five years ago when Randy and his then-partner and now husband, Dan, decided to return from their home in Palm Springs, California to start a farm in Northern New Mexico. Randy had been raised on a 6,000-acre ranch in nearby Gascan as part of his family’s third generation in the same house. There, he developed a love/hate relationship with the region that is known for its stunning beauty and agrarian lifestyle, but offers little opportunity. “My mother divorced my father who was the town drunk,” Randy tells me. “We then moved to Oregon which was the best thing that ever happened to us. If I had stayed, I would’ve become a drunk or a loser.”
Randy, 60, uses disarming candor to explain why he chose to take up farming, which was not a part of his upbringing. “I needed something to do that used up my energy and was fun,” he said. Since he’s constantly in motion, it’s obvious why he chose something as physical as farming. But making the leap from a comfortable California lifestyle to farming life in New Mexico’s mountains, even when you have roots there, is a big one. Initially unfamiliar with commercial poultry methods, Randy learned everything possible about eggs, chickens, and birds that quack and gobble from books he’d read late into the night. Starting out with 100 chickens, he quickly lost 45 to neighbors’ dogs and coyotes. He ordered 300 more chickens, reinforced his fences, and added a couple of border collies to perform security and herding duties.
With hundreds of chickens each laying an egg a day, ducks a little less, and turkeys one every two days, Randy soon had the supply he needed to meet the demand generated by a growing list of loyal customers. Restaurants in and around Santa Fe, Cid’s Food Market in Taos, the Dixon Food Coop, and three farmers’ markets comprised the largest portion of his customer base. While his eggs weren’t certified USDA organic, most of his chicken feed was and his birds were running free and easy under the New Mexico sun in a generously-sized yard planted in cover crops. Things were hectic, Randy was hustling and happy, especially after a farmers’ market when he brought home a bundle of cash.
There’s another part of Randy’s start up story that also requires mention. He wasn’t a young hippie who lived out of the back of a van trying to make a go of farming with some borrowed parental bucks and a used rototiller. Randy and Dan had been sufficiently successful in business in California to buy the Sapello property, a former religious retreat center, without going into debt. They also drew on their own resources for working capital. “It takes five to seven months of feed, water, heat lamps, and hard, caring work before a chicken lays a single egg,” Randy tells me, noting that $13,000 in feed alone is required to fill his three grain bins. Even when the first eggs finally appear, they are generally too small for commercial sale, so Randy donates them to the Bienvenidos Outreach Food Pantry.
A sufficient supply of start-up capital, however, doesn’t insulate you from the misfortunes of farming. When I learned of Randy’s chicken slaughter, I asked him if he was going to have the dogs put down and seek restitution from their owners. He said no, “I have to live with these neighbors, and full restitution for my losses would break them.” But he soon discovered that his charitable impulses had limits. Three weeks later, the same German shepherds returned, and this time Randy caught them in the act. After they killed 34 turkeys, 6 peacocks, and 125 pullets, Randy shot three of the marauding dogs. His patience exhausted; he filed a lawsuit against their owner.
“It was a real awful thing,” he told me over the phone. “The dogs were looking back at me when I had cornered them in the barn as if to say, ‘it’s not our fault, we’re just dogs; it’s our owner’s fault.’ I hated to do it.” He pain was palpable, and his reluctance to escalate the conflict with his neighbor was evident. But he felt there was no other way if he wanted to stay in business.
In a twist of Old Testament fury, the coronavirus swept into New Mexico upending the state’s food system applecart. While one might expect that this unforeseen event likened Randy to Job – chickens smote by dogs, a plague devouring the land – something different occurred. Suddenly demand for locally grown food went through the roof. “Egg sales are out of control,” he told me in late March. People were suddenly making hour-and-a-half drives to his farm from Santa Fe to buy a case of eggs (135). Randy said, “It’s nice that people are coming to my farm; they’ve never done that before.”
Even though his three regular farmers’ markets keep him busy, Randy’s received requests from the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market to sell there. He’s lost his restaurant sales due to the virus, but he can sell everything he produces now to Cid’s. But this is when one injustice closes a door at the same time another one opens. Randy’s egg supply is well down because he’s still recovering from the great fall poultry massacre. “Cid’s wants to buy 16 to 18 cases a week, but I can only produce enough now to sell them 6.” In other words, the coronavirus has created demand for Randy’s egg that he can’t fulfill until the replacement birds are fully producing.
Randy Cruz is a resilient and commercially viable farmer. But the threats are always lurking, sometimes from as close as next door, and other times from across the globe. Your chances of survival are enhanced if you can draw on a reservoir of working capital to weather farming’s uncertainties. Therein lies a lesson for today’s foodies: either we as a community underwrite the risk that our local farmers face – in other words, we become their insurance policy – or we rely on well-financed forms of corporate agriculture. Summing up the challenges, Randy said, “If I was poor, I would’ve been shattered long ago. You need deep pockets to be independent and operate, even at my modest scale.”