SARE Western: Lonnie Roybal
Cooperative Farming of Organic Wheat is a Step Toward Revitalization in Costilla Valley

By David Mudd

Farm at a Glance

Lonnie Roybal
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 and restaurants

Problems Addressed
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 crops.

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.

Excerpted from:

The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation

By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program
© 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

Roybal owns 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.

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 work.

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 some.

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 in 2000.

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 the same.

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 drought.”

Environmental Benefits
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 improve everything.”

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.”

Transition Advice
“You’ve got to pay as much attention to establishing markets for your product as you do to growing it well,” Roybal says.

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.

The Future
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 less efficient.

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 wheat growers.

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 more business.