Last week, the Santa Fe Food Policy Council took its first field trip down to the southern edge of the county to see how farmers are faring.
They’re faring, council members say. But barely.
Members of the council, created in 2008 as a sort of vanguard of the region’s local food system, visited three farms, all besieged by razor-thin profit margins and state and federal regulations. Those regulations, they say, eat up thousands of dollars a year and siphon money away from paying for already enormous transportation costs. For giant agribusinesses, subsidies and economies of scale make the extra costs negligible.
But for Edgewood’s South Mountain Dairy, an extra $10,000 hurts.
The council can’t do much about New Mexico or federal regulations, Katherine Mortimer—supervising planner in Housing and Community Development for the City of Santa Fe, and a member of the council—says. But it can try to make sure that local farms get enough business to survive. “We can provide an economic bottom floor,” she says.
That bottom floor, the council hopes, will come in the form of government-as-near-monopsonist of local food by giving preferential bidding for procurement contracts, both at local and state levels. The legion of public facilities in the state—council members are mostly eyeing prisons and senior centers—would give local farms a certain percentile advantage over large out-of-state corporations: 5 percent in the state and 10 percent in the city. For example, if mega food distributor Sysco offered to provide corn for $100 to a state senior center, a local corn farm would be on equal footing if it offered to provide them for $105—and, in a bid for a city contract, $110.
The 5 percent state preference is technically already on the books, “but it’s really never used,” State Sen. Tim Keller, D-Bernalillo, says. “When you read the 70 pages of laws, it’s like Swiss cheese. There are carve-outs for lots of different industries; there are exemptions for different governments.” A new bill—which will be introduced next session—will be tighter and more enforceable, he says.
Members of the Food Policy Council recently drafted a resolution to promote similar local preference at the county and city levels, and want it to become a part of the revamped city procurement code geared at local preference.
Government contracts have been utilized to boost local farm economies before.
“Some of the Santa Fe schools saved some of the apple growers because they didn’t have much of a market for the apples,” Carol Rose, a council member and head of Food and Nutrition Education at the Department of Health, says. Rose is referring to the 2001 Farm to School initiative, which gave some school food contracts to local farms. That program, according to a report conducted by Alison Harmon from Pennsylvania State University, was of mixed success: Salad mix, for example, was hard to come by throughout the year. And the distribution schedules of the farmers didn’t always sync with those of the schools.
Pamela Roy, council member and executive director of Farm to Table, which organizes Farm to School, says the program has improved in recent years, and that local farms take in “up to $400,000” a year from school contracts.
Because of the arability of New Mexico, and the challenges in large-scale production for small farms, the schools “can’t source completely locally,” Roy says. “But we also see there is an opportunity for producers to expand their markets into other institutions. So that’s why we thought, ‘let’s take the Farm to School example’ and, while we’re trying to find the right combination, we’ll be taking into consider that there are other opportunities for these farms as well.”
And the farms need those opportunities. Donna Lockridge, co-owner of South Mountain Dairy, says her business fell $40,000 into the red last year.
“Small farms in New Mexico and certainly Santa Fe County really struggle to compete with out-of-state vendors,” Lockridge says. “I think it’d be great to have some kind of legislative issue that would help promote the farmers and ranchers in Santa Fe County and New Mexico to have a level playing field.”