FOODPATHS® - MARCH 2017- APRIL 2017
When Seth met Sarah and Sarah met Ann:
…Connecting Landowners with Landseekers
Vida Verde Farm
Albuquerque, New Mexico
When Seth met Sarah and Sarah met Ann is the story of a young farmer who needed land, connecting with a landowner that had land. Leveraging resources, skills, and creativity, a collaborative vision rooted in urban agriculture as an economic and social driver, is now fostering “Sharing the Land.”
Seth Malick is a young Albuquerque farmer and the owner of Vida Verde Farm. With New Mexico’s lengthy growing season of 200 frost-free days, Seth is able to grow seasonal varieties of 300 organic vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruits over four parcels of land. The crops include carrots, onions, fennel, radicchio, four varieties of bok choy, herbs, lettuces and flowers that now produce 10-15 per cent of Vida Verde’s crop.
Seth sells at local farm markets, through a community co-op, and to restaurants. He also participates in a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA), where local residents buy an annual share of the farm (currently $23.00 per week), and in return, receive fresh vegetables for 26 weeks.
A “transplant” from the East Coast, Seth arrived in Albuquerque to work on a farm as an intern. From that experience, he decided to start a farm as a business, planting over an acre the first year, largely selling at three farmers markets weekly. When the land yielded more than he could sell at the markets, he began to approach chefs. Vida Verde Farm took root, but as virtually every business owner knows, there is a tipping point. To grow – not just vegetables, but as a business – one must invest more capital, buy more seeds, hire employees, and acquire more tools, machinery, and equipment to leverage the early fruits of success. Most important, to be a farmer, land and accessible water are critical. This is now Seth’s 9th growing season.
Enter Sarah Cobb: Sarah Cobb grew up in California on a 100-acre farm in the Sacramento Delta, one of the nation’s most fertile agricultural areas. Sarah met her husband, Nat, in Flagstaff AZ., while she was a rafting guide in the Grand Canyon. Nat, who grew up in Corrales, N.M., and is now a retired family practice physician, was about to begin medical school at Harvard University. “Want to go to Boston?” he asked Sarah. She accepted his invitation, receiving her M.A. in Early Childhood Education at Wheelock College in Boston while Nat pursued his M.D. The couple returned to New Mexico while Nat completed his residency at the University of New Mexico and Sarah taught kindergarten. Sarah ultimately served for 14 years as a Field Representative for New Mexico U.S. Senator Tom Udall; Nat focused his family practice on Epidemiology and Public Health. The couple, free of family and careers, began to seek other productive ways to spend their time, purchased a small parcel of land, and offered it up for use as a farm. Seth now farms that parcel.
Enter Ann Simon: Ann Simon is the Economic Development Program Manager for the Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG). New Mexico is an agriculturally-focused state. A changing demographic has impacted a shortage of young farmers. One of MRCOG’s programs is focused on Linking Landowners with Landseekers, connecting those that have land with those that need land, including smaller parcels with access to water. The economically diverse Village of Los Ranchos an area surrounded by the City of Albuquerque situated along the Rio Grande River, has access to a multi-century system of ditches – or acequias – a water conveyance system where water from the Rio Grande is used to irrigate agriculture. Formerly known as “the Bread Basket” of New Mexico, the Rio Grande Valley was once able to feed the entire city of Albuquerque through this system.
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At the point where Seth met Sarah in late 2015, Vida Verde Farm was already well established. “I had planted enough crops on my initial parcel, and then rotated the annual planting through other one-acre parcels as they were acquired,” he said. “Farming and being self-employed is something I’ve loved from the beginning.”
“Success as a farmer is assessed in incremental growth and milestones,” Seth continued. “Every season is an experiment. There is so much risk in farming that is unaccountable. Pests. Weather. Crops that don’t respond to the soil one year when they have flourished in the very same soil the previous year. Labor – small parcels enable us to manage with a skeletal crew. The need to invest in equipment, tools, and maintenance.”
With Sarah’s investment in a well-situated piece of land, Seth acquired a mission critical location for Vida Verde’s infrastructure, housing for employees, space to hold equipment, machinery, and enable construction of a Hoop House allowing for year-round growing. The site also had a large garage with water lines and protective shade that could be used for production and distribution of the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Vida Verde’s CSA provides 8-15 varieties of vegetables weekly for 26 weeks, often without repeats. To secure funding for the Hoop House, Seth applied for and received a reimbursable grant from the USDA’s (United States Department of Agriculture) Soil Conservation National Resource Center. Sarah facilitated the addition of solar panels to the roof of one of the structures, lowering the property’s energy costs.
As Seth was building the infrastructure of his business, a different sort of challenge arose. “It was often difficult to anticipate what vegetables consumers would buy,” he said. “At the same time, chefs were asking for specific and diverse vegetables they could feature on their individual menus.
“I started to shift our focus from planting and selling “a crop,” to being a ‘culinary focused farm,’” Seth said. “I grew up in a household of cooks. My grandmother, my mother. The family kitchen was part of my heritage. I started to farm by thinking about eating rather than growing. Vida Verde grows its crops from the perspective of the plate, and what we are seeing is that our customers are expanding their food horizons, buying in to the surprise of new seasonal varieties formerly only available to chefs.”
Leveraging this concept, Vida Verde initiated a series of bi-monthly Pop-Up Dinners, held at community venues, and featuring seasonal offerings direct from the Vida Verde fields. On the menu at the most recent sold-out dinner were Sunchoke Soup with Brown Butter Roasted Jerusalem Artichokes and Braised Grass Fed Beef with Kohlrabi Mash and Pickled Mustard Seeds. The Pop-Up was held at Sarabande, a stunningly modern Bed & Breakfast, located near Vida Verde Farm. Seth and a fellow farmer and friend, Marjory Sweet, owner of Otter Farm, prepped and cooked the dinner.
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On a warm and sunny New Mexico late winter morning, I met with Sarah and Nat Cobb at the Flying Star Café in the community of Los Ranchos, near one of Seth’s fields.
“When we first met Seth,” said Sarah, “there was an energy and shared vision. Seth is entrepreneurial. He had a list prepared of what he needed for the property outside of the land itself and the water – a walk in cooler, shaded production space, enough room to house the tractors and equipment, the Hoop House. We added solar panels. For any partnership to work, there must be mutual respect, and mutual benefits. The goal is to make the farm financially viable. The land is zoned agricultural, but not commercial. Vida Verde cannot sell anything on-site, but people can come and pick up their produce. We share the land. And of course, we are blessed with the farm’s vegetables and eggs."
“We cannot expect an immediate monetary return,” Sarah continued. “We did a little facelift on the property initially. We rent the houses and the studio apartment as staff housing. We do not rent the land or the production space. We have a five-year contract with Seth. We benefit from existing agricultural tax incentives which encourage agriculture, and impact the value of the land itself. I saw potential. Instead of forcing farmers to seek financing from the banks, we are providing another way of building the foundation of a business."
In the world of finance there is a name for investors that concentrate on “seed capital,” a term for one that provides capital for early stage businesses. The term may well also apply to Sarah who is seeding the success of young farmers.
COG’s Ann Simon described her colleague this way: “Sarah Cobb is the ultimate fairy godmother!”
“Sarah is a community advocate,” added Seth. “She has impacted collaboration between landowners, landseekers, and government. From these relationships, bridges have formed within the community.”
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Based out of the Mid-Regional Council of Governments (MRCOG) (Bernalillio, Sandoval and Valencia Counties), the Agriculture Collaborative hosts regularly scheduled discussion groups focused on community, policy and topic-based issues. A recent meeting focused on the critical issues of older farmers leaving the fields. With their children often electing not to farm, families often retain the land, but cease to farm it. The discussion focused on the relationship between landowners and those who want to farm, but lack the land to do so. There were equal numbers of farmers and landowners in the room, along with a representative from USDA, students, interested citizens, members of COG, and others.
One of the primary issues is finding irrigable land that is also available for the landseekers. “In the Village of Los Ranchos,” Ann Simon, manager of COG, explained in a post-meeting conversation, “the deep-rooted value of protecting water rights – access to the ditches, the acequias – dominates any discussion of land use. Everyone is tied to the ditches—historically, and in the present.”
“Los Ranchos and the communities along the Rio Grande have access to the ditches.” she said, pointing up. “In the high desert city of Albuquerque, you can’t count on water from the sky. Farming is a challenge.”
The discussion ranged from the expectations of landseekers to the ways experienced landowners could mentor their younger colleagues. A female farmer offered that when she first considered seeking land, she really did not know what questions to ask. “I just dug,” she said. “It would have been helpful to have some guidelines.”
Most of the landowners agreed that a base three-year lease was necessary. Requirements to successfully farm a quarter-acre tract were defined: a quality farmer, three Hoop Houses, and how much water the field would require. Landowners shared the pros and cons of organic soil certification, a process taking three years to assure that the soil is “clean” (from pesticides and other contaminants) and healthy. An ancillary issue was knowing who owned the land next door and the answer to the question, “Do they spray?” Softer farmsteading issues were also discussed, including mutually agreed upon “rules” over hours of farm work, arrivals and departures, housing for staff, and guests. Finally, they explored whether a formal written lease or a hand-shake agreement was in the best interest of the relationship.
Ann noted that the Village of Los Ranchos was beginning to warm up to the “front yard garden,” non-contiguous mini parcels across many neighborhoods that could keep the region “green” and continue to build community across all income levels.
Nat Cobb offered a final insight into the concept of “green space” in land use.
“Perhaps we need to take another look at the use of ‘green space’ itself,” he said. “Developers plan golf courses and housing developments with extensive plantings of trees, shrubs, and grass. Why can’t that space be used for small scale farmers growing food?”
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