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Organic Wheat Growers' Cooperative Celebrates 10th Birthday

COSTILLA - Gonzalo Gallegos, 55, struggled for years to get by on $10 an hour as a butcher in Red River. But since 2000, he's earned an extra $12,000 a year through the Sangre de Cristo Agricultural Producers cooperative, which grows organic wheat in northern New Mexico for sale to local bakeries and restaurants.

Cloud Cliff bakery owner Willem Malten (left) and baker Luis Chavez make Pan Nativo (Native Bread) from organic wheat flour supplied by the Sangre de Cristo Agricultural Producers cooperative. Pan Nativo is Malten's best-selling product, accounting for one-third to one-half of the Santa Fe bakery's annual sales. (NMSU Agricultural Communications photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

"It's a solid boost to my income," said Gallegos, who joined the co-op when it started in 1995 and became president in 2001. "Nobody's getting rich, but the cooperative is giving an income to families like mine that really need it."

David and Wanda Cordova, who grow wheat and alfalfa on a 40-acre plot near Costilla, say the $12,000 they earned from the cooperative last year accounted for nearly half their family income.

"Northern New Mexico can be a tough place to make a living," Wanda said. "People need to find ways to get by up here, and this is one way."

The cooperative, which was created with help from New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, celebrated its 10th year in operation last fall. It has nine wheat-growing members, mostly from Questa and Costilla, and employs up to six temporary workers during planting and harvest.

"It's had some ups and downs, but the cooperative has provided a fairly constant source of income for local growers," said Del Jimenez, agricultural specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "The co-op brought in over $100,000 last year to a community where unemployment is traditionally very high."

Extension and the NMDA have worked closely with the growers since the co-op's creation, providing technical assistance and education for members. Production was slow at first because most cooperative members were one or two generations removed from agriculture, and they had to learn the basics, Jimenez said.

"They didn't know anything about farming when they started, so we encouraged them to grow wheat," he said. "That's an easy crop to produce. You can make a lot of mistakes, and it will still grow."

As the growers gained experience, co-op production climbed from 40,000 pounds of wheat in 1997 to a peak harvest of 560,000 pounds in 2001.

In recent years, drought has caused huge production swings given that most growers rely on acequias (ditch systems) to irrigate their fields. Output dropped to just 50,000 pounds in 2002. The following year it bounced back to 500,000 pounds because the growers rented irrigated farmland with a well and center pivot system. When that rental contract ended in 2004, however, production dropped to 180,000 pounds.

NMDA is helping negotiate a five-year lease on another irrigated farm.

"That should stabilize everything," said NMDA marketing specialist Craig Maple. "The goal is to get back to 500,000 pounds or more in 2005 and then keep production at that level."

The rented land should easily gain organic certification because the owners never used chemicals, Maple said. That's crucial, because the co-op's success is based on its organic product.

Organic wheat sells for 11.6 cents a pound, compared with about 3.3 cents a pound for conventionally grown wheat. Moreover, the co-op mills all 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, or more than five times the amount conventional growers earn selling wheat on the open market, Jimenez said.

By offering a locally grown organic product, the cooperative enjoys a niche market for its product, Gallegos said.

"Demand for our flour is growing, which is why we're working so hard to get production back up," Gallegos said. "Local bakeries and restaurants have really responded to our marketing efforts."

The biggest customer is Santa Fe-based Cloud Cliff bakery, which launched a completely new organic bread made from Sangre de Cristo co-op flour and dubbed "pan nativo," Spanish for "native bread."

Cloud Cliff buys about 10,000 pounds of flour per month from the co-op to bake 8,000 to 9,000 loaves of pan nativo, which are sold for up to $5 per loaf at natural food stores and other retailers in northern New Mexico.

"It's been my best selling product for years," said owner Willem Malten. "Sales of pan nativo contribute one-third to one-half of all my sales, and I think there's still room for growth."

Taos Bakery buys 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of co-op flour per month. And last year, four Taos-based restaurants, such as Outback Pizza and DragonFly Café, began buying 5,700 pounds of flour a month, Gallegos said.

In addition to boosting members' incomes, the co-op helps keep local agriculture alive in a region where farming has declined.

"Projects like these keep farming going as a way of life in northern New Mexico," said Victor Mascareñas, a co-op member and former manager of the Rio Costilla Acequia Association. "Our land and our water are the heartbeat of our communities. We want to keep the tradition alive."