Costilla, New Mexico
Summary of Operation
• Spring and winter wheat
and alfalfa on 150-180 rented acres
• Helped establish a cooperative
that markets organic wheat to bakeries, groceries
Depressed community. Lonnie
Roybal wanted to help reverse the deterioration
of the economy and the community in his hometown,
as well as make a living as a farmer after years
spent working in mines and as an itinerant carpenter.
For generations, farming had been at the subsistence
level in the Costilla River Valley in north central
New Mexico. There wasn’t enough forage for
sizable herds of cattle or sheep, and even with
a federally financed irrigation system, the soil
was too poor to promise great success with row
Low commodity prices.
No row crops in Roybal’s area were selling
at high enough prices to justify the cost of the
inputs it would take to grow them. That was true
even for wheat, a plant that generally doesn’t
require much in the way of inputs except for water.
Roybal’s grandfather and others had grown
wheat in the valley in the early part of the 1900s,
but Roybal realized he wasn’t likely to
get a high enough price on the current market
to pay for even minimal inputs. That, in addition
to the cost of leasing irrigated acreage and water
rights, made the prospect dim.
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 149 to 151
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
only the four acres on which he and his family live outside
Costilla, a parcel of the larger farm his father left to Roybal
and his siblings. The farm provided a subsistence living for
Roybal’s grandparents, but like many in his generation,
his father had worked off the farm to make a living, while tending
small herds of cattle and sheep on the side.
a Path: “You’ve got to pay
as much attention to establishing markets for your
product as you do to growing it well,” says
That gave son Lonnie a taste for farming, but few ideas about
how to make it pay in a semi-arid climate with scrub soil leached
of much of its fertility by over-farming and extensive grazing.
After settling down with his own family — wife, Deborah,
and children, Nina, Luis and Francisco — Lonnie began
asking himself how he could farm and make a living in Costilla.
At the same time, he pondered how he might encourage others
to help reverse the decline of Costilla’s economy that
started when long-time residents began leaving the area to find
With some lifelong friends in the valley who shared the same
urge to return to farming, Roybal began to explore the feasibility
of raising row crops again in the valley. The fledgling cooperative
effort soon discovered that organic wheat could command prices
high enough to pay the costs of raising it — and then
Focal Point of Operation —
Organic wheat marketing
Roybal leases 180 acres, sowing 40 in spring and winter wheat.
He works in conjunction with other members of the Sangre De
Cristo Growers Cooperative, which he helped establish in 1995.
Membership fluctuates from year to year; there have been as
many as 20 farmers involved in a year, while six participated
A lingering drought in New Mexico that first hit in 1998 and
lasted through 2000 accounts for the reduced numbers, Roybal
says. Some of the six members were forced to forego planting
winter wheat due to the reduced amount of Costilla River water
available for irrigation.
Under more favorable weather conditions, however, cooperative
members plant and harvest twice each year. They fertilize
their crops with manure taken from horse corrals and cattle
and sheep paddocks around the Costilla Valley.
The cooperative supplies its flour — milled in Colorado
— to a busy, upscale bakery with several storefront
sites around Santa Fe. The bakery uses the flour for most
of its bread and pastries, and in addition has trademarked
a special recipe for a loaf of bread made from the cooperative’s
wheat, called “Nativo.” It, in turn, is marketed
to dozens of groceries and markets in the Santa Fe area. A
pizza chain and several coffee shop/bakeries in nearby Taos
also have standing orders for the cooperative’s flour.
Selling flour is not the cooperative’s only function.
Its members are interested in revitalizing the area economy
by keeping profits local and “adding value” to
their efforts. For example, it has used grant money to purchase
land and equipment to build its own mill, planned to go on
line in early 2001. The co-op purchased used equipment from
a decommissioned mill in North Carolina.
“We have paid as much as three cents a pound for the
mill in Colorado to grind our wheat, and that’s money
that can stay right here,” Roybal says.
Economics and Profitability
Willem Malten, the Santa Fe baker who established the original
contracts with Roybal and others and who still buys nearly
90 percent of the cooperative’s flour, pays 30 cents
a pound for it. That’s double the 15 cents or less per
pound currently paid on the commodities market for conventional
wheat. Other buyers of the co-op’s organic wheat pay
Roybal, whose production is typical of other cooperative members,
has planted 40 acres of spring and winter wheat each of the
past two years to comply with a state agriculture assistance
program. The program awards farmers up to $100 per acre for
up to 40 acres to buy seed and equipment.
Current yields, at least for Roybal, aren’t very encouraging
— an average of only 12.5 bushels per acre — but
he explains that the whole region has suffered from prolonged
drought, and that his fields in particular are among the least
fertile in the valley.
“I got yields twice that size three years ago when I
was on different fields, but there was more rain then, too,
and we could irrigate more often,” he says.
Roybal’s 60 bushels per crop translates to about 30,000
pounds of wheat. Sold at 30 cents a pound, that means Roybal
has taken in, on average, $9,000 per crop for the past two
years. Even with state assistance in up-front costs, Roybal
allows that isn’t a lot of money, “but it’s
a start in the right direction. It shows that we can grow
a good product even on neglected fields in the middle of a
Well aware that the played-out condition of their soils hampers
their yields and costs them potential profits, cooperative
growers are demonstrating more interest in revitalizing them,
Roybal says. Alfalfa is the cover crop of choice now, because
it can be used and sold so readily for livestock, but some
also are testing black medic, a legume that fixes nitrogen
and is valued as feed because it appears to be an antidote
to bloating in cattle.
Roybal believes yields could be boosted too, and irrigation
water better conserved, if they could level many of the fields
in the valley. “The soil’s very rocky and very
pitched right now, and that makes it hard to hold water —
especially when the summers are so hot,” he says. “If
we can get them more level and remove a lot of the rocks,
plus keep adding manure and using cover crops, we can really
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
Roybal reports a feeling of cohesiveness and hope in the Costilla
Valley for the first time in a very long while. The members
of the cooperative aren’t getting rich, but they are
reclaiming the tradition of farming, and proving that it can
lead to small enterprise and an improved local economy.
“I still have to do the odd carpentry job to keep my
family going,” Roybal says, “but I can see all
kinds of opportunity that wasn’t here before.”
The cooperative and its members need to get better at marketing
and learning about other cash crops that may work in combination
with wheat, Roybal says. They also want to get the local milling
operation under way. Optimism about those opportunities has
replaced doubt and lack of interest, and that’s good
for everyone in the valley.
“We’ve already established a greenhouse that grows
and sells cut flowers and chiles, and that employs two people
right in Costilla,” he says, “so people can see
we’re serious, that farming can make things happen.”
The new mill will bring employment opportunities to the job-starved
area. “It means that a few people here are going to
be trained in the proper ways to grind flour, and that’s
a skill they can use to make a living,” Roybal says.
“Things like that can make a difference.”
“You’ve got to pay as much attention to establishing
markets for your product as you do to growing it well,”
Through grants received by the cooperative, such as a SARE
producer grant, Roybal was able to serve as its marketing
director. The experience showed him both the promising potential
for Costilla Valley wheat and the need for constant effort
to introduce a wider circle of commercial bakers, groceries
and individual customers to their product.
And that brings up another wise move: forming the cooperative.
As an official limited liability corporation, Roybal noted,
the organization can qualify for grants unavailable to individual
farmers. “It kind of puts us on the same level as conventional
farmers who get subsidies,” he says.
Roybal recently won a grant that will help him purchase center-pivot
irrigation equipment. He sees that as a key to reducing both
the amounts of work needed to control the flood irrigation
he and other cooperative members now use, and the amounts
of water lost because flood irrigation systems are so much
He also hopes to open more markets for the cooperative’s
wheat — something he admits is a full-time job in addition
to farming. The praise his cooperative’s wheat has earned,
as well as the money, has convinced him their future lies
in letting more and more consumers know about the Costilla
Roybal and others in the cooperative regularly exhibit their
wheat at venues such as the New Mexico state fair and at farmers
markets in Santa Fe and Taos. They plan to expand marketing
to events and markets in Colorado and Texas, and hope that
the mill itself, once it is built in early 2001, will attract