Category Archives: Profiles

Talus Wind Ranch – Nourishing Community

(Published in Edible Santa Fe, Spring, 2009)

Like many, Tim Willm’s association with New Mexico started with casual visits. But unlike most who relocate, he bought a ranch instead of a faux adobe house in Santa Fe. Located about six miles south of Galisteo, the dry grasslands of Talus Wind Ranch rise to a rocky prominence from which the cheap oakley eye travels to the Sangre de Christo mountains, crossing the broad Galisteo basin on its way. It’s a spacious view and a stunning one, especially when a storm blows in.

Unlike most ranchers, Tim Willms straddles two very different worlds – of art dealer and rancher – which he strives to join. “It wasn’t uncommon in the l9th century for artists to paint farms and farm animals,” Tim points out,  “so in a way, art and ranching aren’t so far apart for me. Art serves as a tool for communicating an idea, and I’ve often used my art history background a tool for communicating concepts. My hope is that I can enlighten others that art and raising food share the potential to nourish a regional community.”

Tim’s decision to become a rancher happened by chance, not design. “I started raising a few sheep, a few turkeys, some rabbits. One Thanksgiving I served my turkey. When my guests said it was the best turkey they had ever tasted, that got me to thinking that I could make raising animals a viable business, not just a hobby.”

His first job was to restore his overgrazed land. He worked with a government agency to figure out how much livestock the land would sustain. His 400 acres, he learned, could sustain 20 sheep if grazing rotation were in place— hardly a viable model for a working ranch. But turkeys didn’t need to graze much, so he began breeding Bronze, Standard Bronze and Rio Grande turkeys. (Today he maintains his flocks by raising his own chicks.) After turkeys, Tim went onto sheep, but using a different plan. “I keep a 110-acre pasture undisturbed for eight months.  I put sixty lambs on it for about four months, alternating days on the pasture according to rainfall. In the process of grazing they help fertilize the grasses. Eventually they come into paddocks and I supplement their feed.”

Tim raises heritage breeds (hence the moniker Talus Wind Ranch Heritage Meats) such as Navajo-Churro, Southdowns, Rambouillet and Finnsheep. All of them have their virtues, except for a feisty Finnsheep ram who fights with the other males. In addition to the chatty turkeys, there are New Zealand rabbits, running ducks, Pilgrim geese, ornamental pheasants, miniature horses, and a potpourri of pretty chickens. All are protected by a pair of Anatolian shepherd dogs, a small herd of donkeys, and Oscar, the spitting, spotted lama.

Talus Wind

One of the early difficulties Tim ran into in trying to raise animals for sale was how to process them, given the lack of processing plants.  “When I realized how many small processing facilities were going out of business across America, I became irritated: local food had become a luxury, and not everyone had the opportunity to explore that option.”

Tim responded by purchasing the Mountainair processing facility in 2006. “It was during a difficult transition period, shifting from the New Mexico Livestock Board to USDA, but we did it. Now I’m USDA certified for beef, lamb, goat, and pigs.” (Rabbits and poultry need their own facilities because of the potential of salmonella.)

Although being USDA certified means a rancher can sell across the state lines, when a group of visiting chefs from the East coast tasted Tim’s lamb and turkey then asked about cheap oakley sunglasses ordering for their restaurants, Tim turned them down, encouraging them instead to find local suppliers in their area. Tim’s own goal is to keep his products within a 200-mile radius. With only sixty lambs, that would makes sense, but it turns out that Tim has created a much larger project.

“After trying to raise more sheep than I was qualified for, I decided to reach out to families who have been raising sheep here for generations, and whose lambs were being shipped off to feed lots in California or Colorado. I spoke with the Perez-Cravens, Hindi, and McCall families, and others raising from 50 to 1000 lambs. I told the families that we were interested in keeping their lambs in New Mexico. We agreed that their practices fit into my protocol regarding the care and feeding of the animals; we agreed on a price, and when ready for slaughter, we would transport them directly from the pasture to processing. They never see a feedlot. We like to give the animals at least 48 hours to acclimate and we try never have more than forty head at a time to avoid the stress and the adrenaline rush that tightens up the meat.”

The twin goals of traceability and transparency that Tim strives for imply that it’s possible to track each animal from ranch to refrigerator, and that the animals are guaranteed raised by traditional ranching methods on properties that are environmentally sustainable. These partnerships enabled Talus Wind Ranch to process 680 lambs last year, enough to take part in Sysco’s Born in New Mexico program, enough to supply local restaurants and enough to give away meat to schools and food banks. Talus Wind is building towards more of an “ag in the middle” concept, producing quality food in quantity while keeping local foods local.

 “Ranching is hard work,” Tim says, “but we need more people doing it so that more people can afford local foods. The way I see it raising livestock is similar to publishing an edition of prints in that it’s a collaboration of talents and skills.  I have come to see these other ranchers as agricultural artists that share my vision of having sustainable, local food sources. Some of the ranchers have a soft voice and they need someone to amplify it so that their vision can be seen. That’s what I want to do – bring a voice and an opportunity to these ranchers. I really want to give ranching the honor it deserves. And when chef’s cook our food – and other local foods for that matter – they are helping their community and it’s important because in the end we only have ourselves, really.”

For more information, ordering, and contact, see

In Santa Fe restaurants, look for, and ask for, Talus Wind Heritage Meats.

The Red Label Bird with Gold Medal Flavor

(Published in Edible Santa Fe, Summer, 2009)

I knew the name pertained to chickens, but what kind of a bird was La Belle Rouge? I gathered it was a beautiful red chicken, but what else? I called Don Bixby of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to find out.

“It’s not a breed, it’s a protocol,” Don explained, leaving me baffled until I discovered that it’s not la belle, but label, as in label.  Label Rouge. Red Label. Don confessed that he had experienced the same confusion, hearing label as la belle. But now we know: it’s a brand, not a bird. A sign, like a blue ribbon or gold medal, that suggests one can expect excellence, in this case a very good chicken. Not merely an advertising gimmick, the quality is real. And Label Rouge chickens are not something imported from France, they’re now here in New Mexico. Thanks to Tom Delehanty of Pollo Real, we can now experience what savvy French shoppers have known for the past forty years, that chicken can really taste like, well, chicken should taste, and it’s nothing like what usually passes for chicken in this country. 

The whole idea of grazing chickens as a production system began in France in the l960s when some visionary farmers, frustrated by the poor quality of post-war industrialized chicken and poor economics of farming put together a pastured-based system that would not only produce better tasting birds, but would produce better income for farmers and reinvigorate rural communities.  The program, called Label Rouge has been successful in accomplishing its various goal of producing a superior tasting bird reminiscent of the farmyard birds so many people had grown up with. Excellent flavor is a hallmark of the program’s success. Regular taste-tests are conducted to make sure that any participant’s birds are of such high quality that they are, in the program’s words, “vividly distinguishable” from conventionally raised chickens.

Their superior flavor is gained by putting a great number of protocols in place, the most important one having to do with the genetics of the birds. Label Rouge uses slow-growing birds that take three months to reach maturity in contrast to the six weeks allotted for the industrial Cornish cross breed. These hybrids birds, bred from “rustic” stock, are big, hearty chickens that are innately well suited to life Ray Ban outlet outdoors.  Tellingly, two of the four breeds used in the red label program are called “rangers” because they tend to range far and wide for good things to eat.  Being longer lived and kept outdoors except at night results in chicken that not only has good flavor, but also has a firm texture.

Of course many things must be in place to achieve high quality besides the breed, and that’s where a long list of protocols and practices come into play.  For example, the birds are given non-medicated feed, never fed any animal products or growth stimulants or other inappropriate additives. They are allowed a minimum life span of 12 weeks, and cannot be subjected to a journey of more than two hours or 64 miles to a processing plant. Their beaks are not removed nor are their toes trimmed.  Whether fenced or not, the chickens are raised in open air – truly in the out of doors – not just given a patch of grass to walk onto. One picture I’ve seen shows the birds ranging in an unfenced forest. The chickens are housed at night, but the buildings are limited as to the number of birds that can inhabit them, and there can be only 4 buildings per farm.  In between flocks, the farm area must be rested for at least three weeks, which is good for the health of the farm.

The list of rules goes on regarding weight, stock density, feed rations and so forth, in great detail. Judgment as to how well the standards are met is given by a third party, but, in spite of the strictness of the program’s standards, members tend to surpass them, not unlike those organic farmers here who grow to a higher standard than that allowed by the USDA, except that these standards are higher to begin with. I don’t want to bring bad news, but our industrial natural and organic chicken, the Rosies and the Rockys, are raised pretty much like other factory-farmed birds. The birds are pushed through their life cycle in six short weeks, which is hard on them; their legs, for example, don’t develop well. They’re also debeaked and clipped, they’re kept in crowded conditions and that so-called Occhiali Da sole Ray Ban outlet access to the outdoors happens only in the last week of their life. By then they have no interest in going out-of doors because they don’t know what it is. While it’s not so hard for a restaurant to claim that its chicken is organic, if it’s industrial organic, you may not find it much more appealing as eating a regular, cheaper supermarket chicken.

The protocols demanded by the Red Label program result in healthy, well-developed good tasting birds. As you would expect, they cost more than industrial birds, but that hasn’t kept Label Rouge from being a forty-year plus success. Today it commands 30% of the poultry market in France, despite that the cost to the customer is considerably higher. The French are, after all, known to value quality and taste more than Americans do, but a lot of us care about these things too, and are willing to pay the higher price for high quality and simply enjoy it less often.

Tom Delehanty and his wife, Tracey, of Pollo Real, have been feeding northern New Mexico good, organic, truly pastured chicken for the past ten years. They started raising the industry’s standard bird, the Cornish cross.

“Increasingly,” Tom explains, ”we’ve found problems with the birds. The eggs come contaminated with ecoli and septisemia, but the company won’t tell us that, or provide us with a test, so I have to take my chicks in to have them tested for disease and contamination, which is especially important for us since we don’t use the antibiotics that are part and parcel of large scale industrial poultry. This isn’t the case in Europe. The French chickens are tested by the breeders before they’re sent out; they’re far more rigorous in their standards, so we feel much better about their quality.”

Tom also points out that compared to the giants of the chicken industry, Pollo Real is far too small to be heard let alone catered to, so essentially, it’s not a situation that can improve. While Pollo Real’s grazing methods, organic feed, and better care have resulted, in excellent chicken, Tom, who comes from generations of Wisconsin chicken farmers and has a feel for the old barnyard breeds, has longed to be doing something with more interesting breeds of birds. I asked if he was interested in raising old American varieties, such as those watched over by the American Livestock Conservancy Board.

“They’re great birds,” Tom says, ” but far too slow growing to make sense commercially. They take even more months longer to mature than the French birds.”

So it turns out that the rustic hybrids in the Label Rouge program fit his needs far better than old breeds.  As for their flavor, that was confirmed when Tom and Tracey attended Terra Madre in Italy, the meeting of 5000 small scale food producers from 132 countries put on by Slow Food International.  There they were able to taste some Red Label bird that had been brought to the gigantic food fair, Salone del Gusto, by some French poultry farmers.

“They kept giving us these little pieces,” Tom recalls, “and they tasted like a good yard bird. We really liked it.”

Eventually a breeder came here via France, England and Canada and started raising the hybrid chickens – Poulet Nu, a reddish brown bird with a naked neck, the Gourmet Black, “which looks a lot like a Bard Rock,” Tom says, and two others, the Bronze and Gray Rangers, vigorous foragers that like to roam far for their food. I asked Tom what it was like working with new breeds of birds after so many years with the Cornish crosses.

“They’re beautiful!” He enthused.  “Their colors are just gorgeous and they have these long legs and handsome heads. They stand a lot taller and they’re much more active than the other birds. You’ll never see them park themselves by the feed. They go right out into the yard and graze. They need less protein than other birds, but even so, they grow pretty fast, and with those longer legs, you get more muscle.”  Which means better texture.

Fast growing or not, Tom follows the French rules, raising the chickens for 12 weeks, which is partly what give them better flavor – and greater size. A six-pound bird makes a magnificent Sunday dinner.

To find out whether there really was a difference in taste, I roasted the regular bird and the Red Label bird side by side. I just rubbed them with salt, put them in a searing hot cast-iron skillet then roasted them at 475’F, turning 3 times in all.  I carved each bird and served the three others who didn’t know which was which.  While carving, I could hardly stop tasting the Red Label bird, it was so good, and the experience was the same for my tasters. Two of them commented on the utter deliciousness and firm texture of the French bird. The third taster, my husband, doesn’t much like chicken in the first place, and accordingly, he identified the French birds saying they were too “chickeny.”  But then, that’s just the point – they really are chickens, and they do have their own, real flavor.  The taste like chicken can and should!

Next week at the farmers’ market I asked other people if they had tried Pollo Real’s French chickens and those who had, raved. 

“Incredible flavor!” enthused one. 

 “They were so moist,” recalled another.

 “Fantastic!” exclaimed a third, while a fourth mentioned that the meat was darker and juicier. Interestingly, there are pretty much the same kinds of comments that have been made about the heritage turkeys Tom raises, which are also rustic breeds: they’re juicier, have darker meat, firmer texture, more flavor and tend to be more elongated and less ball-like in shape.

With so much enthusiasm from Tom and customers for the new birds, I had to ask Tom what the challengers were for him when it comes to raising them.

“There aren’t any, really,” he said. “In fact, they’re a joy.”

The way Tom sees it, “We’re creating a culture of food, and by sharing our food and what we know, hopefully we can change the direction of industrial organic to food that comes from the heart and soul.  In the end, cheap food is cheap.  It devalues everything and makes us, as a people, incredibly unrealistic.”

The beautiful French chickens aren’t cheap, but they have great value. You’ll know when you cook one, that this is doing chicken right.

Micaceous Pots

(Previously published on

Just as chiles might be regarded as the iconic food of New Mexico, micaceous pots are the region’s iconic cookware. These utilitarian vessels have been made and used by Taos, Picuiris, Nambe, Tesuque, Jemez Jicarilla Apache, and other native peoples since well before these groups first had contact with the Spanish in the 1500s. Micaceous cookware is also, in some respects, an ingredient, for these pots impart a special flavor to foods cooked in them—and is thought to improve the taste of water that has been stored within their sparkling walls.

A naturally occurring blend of mica and red clay, micaceous clay is found in pockets in the mountainous areas that rise above New Mexico’s Rio Grande valley floor. I was fan of those pots made by master Felipe Oretega for a long time, but it’s only in the past few years I’ve had my own pot. Now I can’t imagine cooking in anything else. I love the look and feel of the clay, which is softer than metal and lighter than cast Ray Ban outlet iron, and the subtle scent of minerals and earth that floats off it in the heat.  Foods cook evenly and beautifully in clay, and many people swear that beans are tastier than when cooked in metal. Felipe Ortega suggests that it’s the combination of the acidic mica with the more alkaline clay that makes food taste so much better. “Sweet” is the word he uses. Not sweet as in sugary, but sweet as in balanced, as opposed to harsh or bitter.

Beans are the most common food to find simmering within the walls of micaceous pots, but you can cook pretty much anything in them. I have roasted Navajo-Churro lamb and made chicken fricassees, vegetable soups and ragouts, beets, potatoes, braises, and any number of other dishes in my micaceous pots. I can’t really say with any kind of proof why these foods seem to taste better than if they were cooked in more conventional pots, but I know that I enjoy the process more – the light feel of the clay and the soft sounds utensils make when they come in contact with the rim of a pot. I also just like to have the pots out where I can see them, because their shapes and colors are so beautiful. In fact, it’s not unusual for people to buy micaceous pots as works of art at Santa Fe’s Indian Market. They put them on display and never use them at all.

Micaceous pots are shaped by hand through the coil method. Once the clay has dried, it’s rubbed with a piece of sandstone to lighten the overall weight and even out any heavy spots. Following that, a slip that has more mica in it than the body is poured over the pot; then the whole thing is polished with a stone to bring out the mica’s sparkle. Next the pot is buffed with a cloth. All in all it takes many hours to get to the point when the pot is finally ready to be fired in a wood fire built on the ground or in a shallow pit. Where there is contact between the pot and the burning wood, soft plumes of gray and black, called fire clouds, appear and mark the vessel. When the air supply to the fire is reduced, the pot emerges black.

 Many pots look as symmetrical as if they had been thrown on a wheel, but often there are areas of gentle swelling, dips, and other irregularities that reveal the presence of the hands on the clay. One of my pots, made by New Mexico artist Priscilla Hoback, is marked with a hair from one of her horses, a delicate black line on the clay that feels somehow like a signature. (Sometimes this mark is made with human hair.) Occasionally a pot will have a designed etched on it, or a design formed by a ribbon of clay, but many functional micaceous pots aren’t adorned except with the golden flecks of mica and the fire blooms. They may have lids, or not. They might curve softly at the rim, like the exaggerated folds of a fluted piecrust, or the top may flare simply and Ray Ban outlet elegantly outwards. The only colors present are the colors of earth and fire. Glazes aren’t used traditionally.

As with all good things made by hand, micaceous pots are expensive – upwards of $100 a quart. But to cook in a micaceous pot is to participate in the ancient yet still living culture of the Southwest. These pots are works of art—the kind of art that you can handle, smell, cook in, wash, and use every day. And micaceous cooking pots repay you with a subtle ingredient: the sweetness of this clay, and all that it imparts to the foods you cook.

Margaret’s Big Idea – Taking the Market to the People

(Published in Edible Santa Fe, Summer, 2009)

It’s mid-April when I follow Eremita Campos and her daughter, Margaret, of Algo Nativo, out to their greenhouse where they’ve got the jump on the season: pots of squash, melons and tomatoes are already well on their way to becoming producing plants. Margaret harvests some tiny beets and clips lettuce for our lunch. On the way back to the kitchen she pulls up some garlic that has strayed from its bed. The greens and garlic Magliette Calcio A Poco Prezzo go into a cast iron skillet with some other vegetables, and then they get folded into tortillas less than an hour old. A slice of cheese softens over the vegetables and we dine on vegetable quesadillas so succulent it’s hard not to be greedy.

Margaret and Eremita have been farming together for a long time.  I credit them with introducing Santa Feans to an extraordinary array of heirloom tomatoes and eggplants, Eremita’s passion. But not one to be content with a job plus farming plus kids, Margaret started a cooking school, Comida de Campos where students start their day with warm scones and jams from the farm, before going into the fields to harvest the food they’ll cook under Margaret’s tutelage.

“People love to be on the farm,” Margaret says. “For some, it’s the experience of returning to something they know. For others it’s a chance to connect some deeper farm memory.” Summer classes fill quickly at Comida de Campos, but in June Margaret encourages people to bring their children. Her own two children like vegetables (and can cook a few meals), and she feels it’s important to give other kids a positive experience.

“So many mothers will say ‘My kid won’t eat that’.  But then I serve my vegetable quesadilla with its broccoli, beets, carrots and all, her kids eats it all and love it! Kids tend to have this automatic ‘I don’t like that’ response to vegetables without really even knowing what they are. When they eat some and love them, they’re even surprised that they’re vegetables!”

With the school more or less running itself, Margaret is turning her attention to new ventures.  “It’s not just kids who generally eat poorly, it’s a lot of people. I want to find a way to get good farm food to people of all ages, people who can’t necessarily get to the farmers market.” To do this, Margaret and Eremita, are changing how they farm and how they connect people to food.

“We see a people around Embudo who are starting to grow market gardens,” says Eremita, who thinks there could be a surplus of produce at the market this summer – and possibly fewer shoppers. While none of us know how the market will shape up, “Growing for farmers markets is always a hard way to make a living,” says Eremita, “and it’s especially hard when you’re competing with the guy who’s retired and practically gives his food away.”

Margaret also notes the trend towards more people growing their own food. “Instead of trying to grow so much produce in the summer, we want to concentrate on the winter, using large solar greenhouses.”  

So Eremita and Margaret are planning to build greenhouses for a winter farm, something akin to what Eliot Coleman is doing in Maine. This would fill a needed gap in the winter and leave the summer open for Margaret’s school and her other big idea – Los Locals.

 “Los Locals is something I’ve been hatching for the past few years, and now it’s time to put it in motion,” she says. She sounds determined. “Basically, I want to complete with Schwaans and put food on a truck and bring it to people because despite the evidence that people want gardens, or at least want to buy locally grown produce, I know from my own experience that it can be very hard if you’re working, going to school, and raising kids.”

What Margaret aims to do is to bring farm food to people who can’t get to a market.  “I want to go to places that don’t have a farmers market, like Angel Fire, or a state office building.”

And she wants to bring them food that is partially prepared and easy to finish – such as cut up calabacitas, or corn that’s been shucked, or bags of braising mixes or vegetables that are ready to stir-fry. “I want to add just enough value to a bag of vegetables that cooking dinner will be easy for people,” she says. And in addition to vegetables, she wants to offer local eggs and meat, and eventually create juice bases from fruit, like apples, and overlay it with berries, peaches and other fruits. Margaret is also a good baker and she wants to offer bread using wheat from the growers in Questa. It’s a big vision.

 As energetic as Margaret is, she can’t really be selling food out of a truck, growing it and partially prepping it, and maybe even teaching people how to cook it. “Once we get it going,” says Eremita “we can involve other people who can grow vegetables.” And Margaret agrees that they don’t Cheap NFL Jerseys have to necessarily grow all the food.  She plans to work with farmers in the area, helping them with hoop houses or whatever it takes to make growing food possible  “And because this is a poor area, people could use jobs growing and prepping.”

“Do you like this idea”” Margaret asks me? 

I love it. It’s a big idea that benefits people on both sides of the exchange. As wonderful as farmers markets are, they can’t be the only means to obtain locally grown food. We need to be working on all fronts, and Margaret’s is a generous vision that could make it possible for more people to eat well. True, there are innumerable steps to take to get her trucks (“Just one to start with,” she cautions) full of ready-to-cook local produce on the road, but she reminds me about St. Theresa, the patron saint of small deeds, or all the little steps that go into taking a big one.

“ Also it’s my year – the year of the Ox,” she adds.

 And what do oxen do?  They put one foot in front of the other and move forward slowly but surely towards their goal. Better keep your eyes open for Los Locals.

Growing the Food-shed . . .

. . . or the best news in local since unsliced artisan bread 

(Published in Edible Santa Fe, Summer, 2008)

The Cooperative Distribution Center is not, perhaps, a name that inspires, but it should, for the CDC may well be the piece that will grow strong food economy based on New Mexico’s mid-sized food producers.  As a strategy of La Montanita’s Food-shed Project, which aims to buy 60% of its food from within a 300-mile radius of Albuquerque within next 20 years, which in turn would generate some $200 million of local food production, the CDC hopes to realize that vision by connecting producers to the market.

Barely a year old, the vision of the CDC came out of the co-op itself, Michelle Franklin, its manager, explains from her office in the Albuquerque warehouse.  It’s a hot afternoon but it’s cool and calm in the spacious warehouse, not unlike Michelle herself.

“We’ve always done annual surveys of our members, trying to find the piece that plugs a shopper into the co-op. It turns out to be local food. That La Montanita supports local growers is inherent to who we are, so we’ve never thought to pull it out as something special. In fact, it wasn’t a buzz word for us because buying local is something that management has always been in agreement on.”

But local was a buzzword for its customers. Steve Warshawer, who was working on similar project with New Life Co-op in the late 1970s and is now at heart of the CDC’s activities, says, “The emergence of organics as mainstream has caused some co-ops to look back at their roots as member-owned organizations and ask people what matters to them. La Montanita has seen local food rise steadily to the top of member’s concerns.”

So in June of 2007, the co-op’s then general manager, CE Pugh, started talking with Steve about what they could do to support local farming better. Help with distribution, was the answer.  Help take the load off the small-scale food producer, so that he or she didn’t have to spend all their time making deliveries.  In this way, La Montanita has taken up the cause of economic development by connecting the dots and linking urban and rural centers through distribution. Getting food from here to there is one of the big obstacles that burns people out, whether they’re growing potatoes or boiling bagels.  They spend a lot of time driving to get food to market, which is expensive and takes time away from work.

In spite of the successes we see at farmers’ markets, there’s a side to small-scale food production that doesn’t get mentioned, and that is the failure to thrive over the long run. Michelle and CE both note that when tracking the checks they write to local producers, they notice not only the new cheap oakley ones, but also those who are no longer in business.  Steve, who is brutally realistic about the precarious state of small food businesses asks,  “If we’re buying everything a business gives us, and they fail, what’s wrong?   The truth is, farms and other small food businesses don’t last all that long. People change, they get divorced, they get tired, and they flash and burn.” 

 “So basically,” Michelle says, going back to the CDC, “we rented a truck and hired a driver and ran around by the seat of our pants with Steve connecting the truck with the product at the farming end of it and the retail at the other end.”

“Last summer I did five jobs – and my farm!” Steve says.  “I didn’t have a warehouse, but I had truckloads of food. So I ended up using part of the floor of Just the Best, one of the few independent food distributors in New Mexico.” By fall, the owner, Bill Morrison, who Steve regards as the guru of the produce business, said “Enough!”

“So I moved my pallets of potatoes and onions to the Los Poblanos warehouse in Albuquerque for six months, during which La Montanita found new headquarters. They moved into in January then built out the warehouse.” After that, the co-op officially took over the CDC business, with Michelle at the helm, coordinating its various parts.

What the CDC does is help producers on both the distribution and development side.  In terms of distribution, CDC helps move food around, picking it up and carrying it to it’s various end points, thus saving the producer valuable time. Michelle again, “We’re helping some people get their product to cheap oakley sunglasses their markets without taking possession of their product. They’re taking their own orders and for a small pass through fee, we deliver. This keeps the money in their hands and gets the product out there and helps to expand their market. But we also act like usual distributors, buying and reselling product, and we try to keep in the conversation about weather and crops so we all know what to expect.”

The CDC helps in other practical ways, like making freezer space available to Heidi’s Jam for frozen berries and buying organic sugar by the pallet, which Heidi can then buy as needed at a savings. Michelle looks for opportunities to create closed loop systems – take chicken feed, for example. She buys wheat from White Mountain Farm in the San Luis Valley and also goes to Embudo Valley Organics, where Johnny McMullen mixes organic feed for his turkeys.  Both of these items are then delivered and sold to the Beneficial egg producers.   

“When I go to La Loma, I bring feed to Earl Sullivan, who raises eggs.  He gets the egg cartons from CDC, too, with the Beneficial labels, and farmers get produce boxes and twist ties. They go through a ton of boxes. We reuse what boxes we can and recycle when we can’t.”

Among the producers CDC works with are Sweetwoods Creamy and South Mountain dairies for goat cheese, Ed Sullivan, Robert Iverson and Steve Warshawer for eggs, Soaring Eagle Ranch and Taos Mountain for beef, which the Co-op uses in its deli. There’s White Mountain Farm in Mosca, Colorado, for potatoes and quinoa, Aroma Fresca’s herbs, Livity Farm’s gorgeous spinach, and Rasband Dairy’s cream and milk. These suppliers range from all over the food shed’s 300 -mile area, and a truck is out five days a week picking up food and getting it into stores.

Steve has shifted his focus from finding producers to enterprise development, for if The Food-shed project is to succeed, a lot of capacity building is needed.  “I’m trying to make these small businesses sound enough to buy into the distribution center, helping businesses get oriented and situated so that they can be players.” 

Specifically, what Steve is looking for are medium-sized businesses, those that don’t rely soley on farmers’ markets for sales, but are large enough to be able to supply retail buyers. “Small farms are not going to feed the country,” Steve says.  “They don’t create access to anyone but the few who shop at farmers’ markets. Medium-size farms are the key of agricultural future,” and those are the businesses he is trying to foster.

The obstacles to being such a farm or food business are labor and access to capital. “The balance between access and cost are as much barriers as the market as distribution,” Steve says, “so I’m talking to producers about all of the barriers, not just the ones that are easy to address.” 

This is perhaps the most difficult challenge Steve and the CDC faces – to help grow farms, dairies, and ranches to a scale that is large enough to work with a distribution system. In fact, Steve would say that this is the biggest challenge of agriculture that the US faces – the development of the middle-sized business that occupies the place somewhere between micro- and commodity-scale production.

Quality is another area that the Co-operative Distribution Center addresses through the Beneficial Farm brand, which comes out of Steve’s farm and CSA, formerly called Beneficial Farm. Essentially an eco-label that sets a standard for excellence, it is given to smaller producers who aren’t certified organic for whatever reason (too small, too expensive, don’t want to be), but who do want to be certified as clean. Beneficial has become a moniker for regional and small-scale food producers who practice stewardship objectives and sustainable values in a semi-arid landscape, and to those who recognize and appreciate what it takes to build and sustain soils intergenerationally. Those using the brand practice what we lay people would say is organic, but what this really means that in addition to organic practices there’s a farm improvement plan that looks at water use, soil building and soil conservation. These are areas of concern that go beyond the realm of Big Organics.

A third part of CDC’s effort to build capacity is to reach beyond supplying only the La Montanita stores.  To this end it has the licensing capacity to market to larger retailers such as Whole Foods and Raley’s, large catering companies like Bon Appetit, which has its own local-foods program, and huge distributors such as Sysco.  For those farms, ranches, dairies and kitchens that have enough to sell, licensing and delivery taken on by CDC is another blessing, and it makes it easier for the CDC, as well. For those of us who are buyers, it means that we can buy Beneficial Eggs at Whole Foods and have them for breakfast at the Galisteo Inn – brought of the Sysco truck. 

To pay for such activities, which is essential to making the CDC succeed where other efforts have failed, Michelle makes sure that on the return trips form Las Cruces, Gallup and Southern Colorado, the truck isn’t empty.

“An empty truck with no payload is expensive to run,” she explains, “so I would certainly entertain backhauling non-organic onions to someone here who isn’t strictly organic, so as not to have an empty truck.” The money made on backhauling or on distributing products other than those represented by the program’s participants, is what pays for the generosity part of the picture, and one has to think about such practicalities to succeed at connecting all the dots. The plan is for the CDC to be out of the red within three years.

Another player in his project is Robin Seydel. In charge of membership and community development at La Montanita, which means education.  “Those members who still relate to the cheap food model need to be excited and inspired about the possibilities provided by eating locally!” Robin is clearly excited and inspired about local food – and knows why she pays more for it. “It’s the freshness, that I’m doing better by my neighbors and that I’m doing the right thing for the planet compared to the food miles involved in most foods – I don’t want to participate in those food miles – and that the food I eat comes from my region. I love to eat in season and I’m happy with my local foods. That’s what excites me.!”  And so, Robin spends a lot of her time writing and talking and exciting those others who are just discovering the advantages of eating locally.

Sarah Grant has long been involved in northern New Mexico’s agriculture and who was, for years, essentially a one-person distribution company, picking up and delivering foods from here to there from the back of her hatchback, says, “I’m really thrilled at what I see. Both Steve and Michelle are working very, very hard.  I think the CDC is something that can happen because now gas is going up, people do want to support their local farmers, and now is the time.” 

But Sarah also senses a certain skepticism – and conservatism – on the part of farmers that needs to be overcome.  “They’re wary of new systems and it takes time for people to change.”

Perhaps this reflects the difficulties of growing to that middle-level combined with the not so great experiences that farmers’ who’ve done that here in the past. “Things go along fine, then suddenly the price drops, or the orders drop, but the plants keep producing. They’re burned. You can’t blame them for holding back,” Sarah says. “It might take a while to get any wrinkles out. But I’m hoping that people don’t focus too much on the wrinkles and instead look at the larger picture. I want people to see how much potential there is.  Basically, it’s an all around win-win situation.” 

And I couldn’t agree more.

Farmer Monte’s Regional – Seasonal CSA

(Published in Edible Santa Fe, August, 2009)

It’s 94 degrees out, but when Monte Skarsgard emerges from the fields of Los Poblanos Organics the heat doesn’t seem to be slowing him down. Nor is much else. Monte runs this 6-acre farm in Albuquerque’s north valley, plus a 16-acre farm in Isleta. Produce from both farms go to his 1800 CSA members. Most of the recipients live in Albuquerque, but Los Poblanos Organics, also known as LPO, also delivers boxes of good farm food to 80 members in Santa Fe, 120 in Los Alamos, and more in Las Cruces. 

Aside from its large size, what sets LPO apart from other New Mexican CSAs, is that even in winter the LPO boxes are filled with fruit and vegetables. Curious about how this CSA works, I spent a few hours with Monte under the shade of an apple tree where he talked about his vision for his unusual CSA.

Monte grew up in Albuquerque, close to where he farms today. As a kid, he took care of his parents’ two acres.

“Essentially, I learned about landscaping,” he says, “and to make money I got landscaping gigs in private homes. After a while I wanted to learn more about the botany, which I did at UC Santa Barbara. I learned through an old Japanese guy who had a private nursery, and I still use his techniques.”

But while at the nursery, Monte was put off by people coming in with a bug problem and the belief that what they needed was a chemical. “It really rubbed me the wrong way, so I thought, why not start an organic landscape company?”

Monte had read about the agro-ecology program at UC Santa Cruz six months earlier. A seed had been planted, but it didn’t hit him until after graduation. Once he saw his future direction, he enrolled in this socially intense six-month program, in which 45 people live on a small farm in tents and learn how to farm organically.

“The communal living part was hard, but not the farm work,” Monte recalls. “I was eating the kale and strawberries out of the field and they tasted so alive I was totally bitten by organic bug and I haven’t been able to shake it.”

After completing the program, Monte worked as an intern with a farmer near Seattle. Jubilee Farm had a 220 member-CSA, a little bit of farmers’ market presence, and a really big pumpkin patch.

“A river cut through the land, there. The valley was the farmland; the farmhouses were on the hill.  And there were different farming styles, from the 2-acre to the 80-acre farm. I asked a lot of question then funneled what I heard through my own prism. I was thinking about Albuquerque 10 years in the future, and I thought the demand would be there. I started to mold the CSA model through that farm and the growers around there.”

So about 6 years ago Monte returned to New Mexico and started to farm on the Los Poblanos land with the intention of growing a CSA.  “I was thinking it would be great if we got maybe a Ray Ban outlet couple of hundred members, but news of LPO exploded. The desire to have organic food and be part of the movement was strong. You had people moving here to work at Intel who had been CSA members before, and here we were, the only CSA. It’s gone way beyond what I thought would happen.”

Flexibility is very important in this CSA.  A customer can go to the website and tailor her delivery, adding such items as New Mexican organic pecans and peanut butter, Sage bread, and eggs from Beneficial Farms. Or not.  A member can put in some hours on the farm in exchange for a half-price share, as is frequently true of CSAs. What’s unusual is that the produce doesn’t taper off during the winter when the farm isn’t producing. And that’s because Monte brings in produce from Colorado, Texas, and California.  This is a regional CSA. It’s not purely local, but let’s be honest: we go way outside our foodshed  every time we go to the store and buy Cal-organic carrots, and  Washington (or new Zealand!) apples, which we all do for many months of the year.  Monte is just up front about it. He isn’t gong outside these four states, and he’s bringing in different foods from those you find at Whole Foods or Smiths.

“We look for regional growers these states as well as New Mexico and that way I can put together a killer box of produce 52 weeks out of the year.  We use our farm as the epicenter and build out from there. If we need more, we get it from one of the other states. Everyone we work with is certified organic because I want to promote clean growing as much as anything – even over local – and if we have a large market presence, there’s an incentive for farmers to go organic and stop dumping pesticides into the Rio Grande.”

Monte works with blueberry growers in Texas and fruit farmers in Colorado. Because he acts as the middleman, he’s able to offer the fruit to members at a good price. Regarding Occhiali Da sole Ray Ban outlet California, Monte buys from a broker called Veritable Vegetable, or VV, a produce company that sources from small scale, high quality farms rather than 1000-acre fields. I’m quite familiar with VV and many of the farms they buy from. If you’re getting food from California, this is what you want. It’s tasty and alive, and the turnaround time from loading the truck in San Francisco to getting it here is relatively short.

What this means for the CSA member is that a typical winter box will have 10 or 11 items, including at least 3 fruits, head lettuce, bunched spinach, potatoes, onions, frozen green chile, maybe a winter squash, and broccoli.” The chile, squash, garlic and a few other vegetables would be from the LPO; the rest gathered from the region. The boxes are consistently plentiful and varied. Their contents, however, disqualify them from being part of locavore’s menu.

In Monte’s view, the traditional CSA is kind of a lose-lose situation. “If you have a lousy year, members go to the grocery store and don’t re-up for the next year. If it’s a great first year, the member might split the order with a friend then we don’t get a new member. Plus the expectations are high. You’ve got people saying, ‘How come there’s only 1 pound of tomatoes this year? Last year it was 3!”

But having a consistently full, diverse box of food helps even out the peaks and valleys, soothing expectation anxieties. “And because of the diversity we offer we can build a larger membership. The more people under our tent, the more we can support organic – and local food. We move a lot of organic produce. We concentrate on poundage, not percentages of what’s local.”

Locavores balk at Monte’s program, but he doesn’t get bogged down in the super-local thing. “I dislike the hard lines people draw in the sand, so we aren’t under pressure to be New Mexico seasonal. Instead, this is a regional-seasonal CSA, and that’s helping people eat fresh food longer. I want them to enjoy the produce. Have that spinach salad in winter and taste that sunshine! There’s a lot to be said for the enjoyment of our food.”

By putting together food from middle-sized farms – those that are too big for a farmers market but don’t want to get into the Whole Food’s pricing system – Monte is essentially creating an aggregated “ag in the middle” market. It’s hard to do this from New Mexican farms alone because they’re either far too small to provide the CSA, or way too big to bother – unless you aggregate, which is a good idea.  But as long as we have winters, the model Monte has created is working well. It’s feeding a lot of people throughout the year with food that is higher quality than a lot of the California grown food available in supermarkets, whether organic or otherwise.

“It’s like riding a bucking bronco some times, but mostly I feel super fortunate to be doing this,” Monte says.  “And the amazing thing is that I never realized how much the community would get behind it.  If we need something, people come out of the woodwork; the flood gates open up. And when members come up and suggest things, and they do, I think about doing them. And even do them.”

Given that Monte has largely realized his vision for a CSA in New Mexico, I asked what might be next.

“There is a next step,” he says, “but I can’t quite put my finger on it yet. Possibly more education, more farm tours.  Or, an organic edible landscape company!”

And that would be taking Monte back to his roots.

Eating in Atlanta (After Paris)

(Published on, February, 2009)

First there’s the indisputable pleasure of spending the holidays in Paris –  the famously grey but luminous sky, the aggressive cold but also restaurants from which you emerge feeling warm and content; the markets and museums, the pleasure of simply walking in this most beautiful of cities.  And there’s nothing quite like welcoming the New Year with a few thousand other souls under the Eiffel tower with its shimmy of sparkling stars. And if you say you’re going to Paris for the holidays, everyone forgives you for not being in Sacramento or Little Rock.

But then there’s the flight home – the cramped seats, the slew of movies, the food, which is best to refuse and replace with your own stash of Paris goodies.  Once landed, customized and declared fit to re-enter, there is, for us anyway, the inevitable four-hour layover in Atlanta. This time, however, we were armed with a plan to make those hours pass less painfully than usual, for coming through Atlanta ten days earlier we had noticed a restaurant that we wanted to visit.

One Flew South is in the international terminal on Concourse E, typically the quietest terminal in most large airports. It’s easy to pass by it, which we did first time around. Like others, we came up the escalator and headed straight for the circular wine bar that stands directly in your path. It wasn’t until a salad and a glass of wine later when we turned around to leave that we noticed a rather calm looking restaurant tucked behind a wall of slatted pine boards. After taking a look inside and checking out the menu, we made a plan to pass a few hours at One Flew South on our return. 

“Yes, we know it’s easy to miss,” said the manager, Jerry Slater, “but we’re planning to do something about that.”  They’ve probably done something by now, which is good, because you don’t want to miss it. Not only is the food lovely, there’s a great bar, a clear ability with cocktails, real sushi, and for that long flight out, food to go with you.  This is a combo that could vastly improve one’s flights to faraway places, especially if you’re in coach, and sweeten one’s return, as it did ours.

While “international food with a Southern twist” as described by our waiter, aren’t necessarily words that make my heart sing (though they did in the end), others did.  Such as the Gafas Ray Ban outlet note saying that vegetables are purchased from farms (one I know, actually) within 100 miles of Atlanta, that the fish is fresh and as local as it can be, the coffee is even fairer than fair trade, that in many cases, ingredients are referenced to particular fisheries, dairies and farms – such as Enton’s bacon and Sweet Grass Dairy goat cheese.  Signs of provenance are ones I like to find in any case, but to find them in an airport – well, that’s no less than extraordinary.

We couldn’t really muster sufficient appetite for a braised pork sandwich, or breast of duck and porcini ravioli after sitting for more than eight hours. My husband, a Southerner, went for pan-roasted red snapper on a stylish round of crab-studded grits with collards and a leek cream, while I went for the salmon “hot pot style” – roasted salmon set on round of not grits, but chewy unagi rice, a broth of white miso in fish stock with a bit of cream generously surrounding rice and fish.  Both dishes were delicious and a pleasure to eat. They were just right – nourishing, invigorating and ample enough, as in not too much, food – not unlike portions in Paris, in fact. And I have to say that miso broth definitely pushed me out of my sullen airplane/airport mode into a more life-affirming mood.

“How is it you’re doing this – offering good food in an airport” I asked Jerry?

Not without difficulty, he might have answered.  He talked about how much more insurance they have to pay to be able to bring their own truck filled with farm foods into the airport, than the big corporate food trucks pay. He explained that building the restaurant required special tooling of the venting systems so that no would-be terrorist could slip through them into the kitchen.  Because the chef and cooks actually cook and need to use real knives, they had to agree to have the knives tethered to the boards so that they couldn’t be stolen, an awkward looking arrangement I thought when I visited the kitchen. (One might suppose from this that other eateries rely on using only pre-cut and pre-sliced ingredients in their kitchens.) I hadn’t noticed when we were eating because it was so normal, but the cutlery included metal knives, not plastic ones, which always makes me feel like a child trying to eat like a grown-up. When is the last time you used a metal knife in an airport? For the privilege of being able to cut your food like an adult, TSA counts the knives every week to make sure that none are missing.

There are a lot of extra hoops to jump through that the same restaurant, located outside an airport, would not have to consider. Clearly getting through them required persistence and a strong commitment to the vision on part of One Flew South’s team. But despite these challenges, the group managed to build an elegant space for travelers who wish to step away from the crush of bodies, Headline News, and the endless Ray Ban outlet reminders to control one’s bags, to enjoy a truly good meal in a calm and even beautiful spot. The long dining room mixes Georgia native heart pine with a delicate pink marble, also from Georgia, with chrome and plush, white leather seats. Facing a large mural of a green Georgia forest is a long sushi bar. There’s a smaller back bar for cocktails, and, of course, an ample seating area The slatted wood exterior wall removes one, though not quite entirely, from the airport hallways so you’re not likely to forget that you have a flight to catch, which, I can imagine, might be easy to do.

A good chunk of our layover passed so quickly and so pleasantly that it was only with reluctance that we peeled ourselves from those comfortable seats and made our way to the far more crowded Concourse B. But the next time I fly through Atlanta I know exactly where I’ll head for the inevitable layover, and even be glad for it.

I really hope that One Flew South succeeds beyond all hopes, for isn’t it what we’d like to see in all airports? —A good restaurant that maintains a real connection to local foods which, as a center for coming and goings, practically defies any idea of locale   One Flew South is an unexpectedly fine place to eat and wait out a layover. I just wish there were one in my airport, for that matter. I wonder if they would consider One Flew Southwest for their next venue? Surely white miso and red chile have a chance as partners, don’t they?


Boggy Creek Farm

(A shorter version of this appeared in Saveur, in 2009)

 “Have you been to Boggy Creek Farm yet?” People kept asking me. It was like an ever-repeating mantra. But when I got there I immediately saw why this urban farm held such a special place in the hearts of Austinites. The food, for sure plays its part – the flawless vegetables, flowers, and eggs whose journey to market is all of a few hundred feet. It’s also the place, a 5-acre farm-jewel set in a scrappy neighborhood. And it’s the owners, Carol Ann Sayle and Larry Butler, who farm with such heart that they entice people into their world. Indeed, I have seen a sense of community unfold around Boggy Creek farm that rivals religious allegiance. Customers at the twice-weekly farm stand are seriously devoted to the place. I think of them, The Boggy Creekers.

“Customers think that we live in a dream and want to do what we’re doing,” is how Carol Ann sees it. And she’s right. There’s something in this confluence of place, people and food that touches us deeply and makes us want to be them. Or like them. At least around them. It’s a hard, good life and, at a glance, an enviable one. Their lives have meaning: they feed people.

The old white farmhouse sits in the middle of the property.  Long rows of flowers lead to it from the street, then continue around the house and down the other side. Remay tunnels might be protecting chicories from an icy winter freeze, while a shaded hoop house keeps bell peppers from scorching in the Magliette Calcio A Poco Prezzo summer heat, but everything else grows in the open. The sweetest corn grows skyward, cabbages are big and flat, the cauliflower are golden, and there are all those “weird little radishes,” as Carol Ann puts it. A border of roses and lilies might just break your heart – it did mine. Pause by the chicken house and Carol Ann can give you an account of each bird and its every antic since hatching. I love that the old porch is festooned with a swag of garden cloves, a sure testimony to the work behind the beauty. I’ve sat on that porch with Larry, a bb gun resting across his knees but ready for an occasional pot shot at the squirrel raiding the fig trees. He works hard, but has his limits. “The figs are mine,” he growls.

Despite the bounty of food, the farm kitchen is spare. Two cast iron skillets. An old dented espresso pot. A miscellany of silver and a few plates. The dining table is covered with seeds. Carol Ann and Larry feast on their vegetables, eggs, tofu, and wheat meat, but not meat. “We want to live a long time,” is their excuse, and I want them to, too.

I’ve been to hundreds of farmers markets, but Boggy Creek is different – it’s a farm that turns into a market, rather than a market that hosts farmers – and it’s truly a personal expression of its owners. Along with Carol Ann and Larry, assorted cousins, helpers and friends pitch in on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, washing vegetables in freezing water, chatting with customers, and extracting an occasional child from the strawberry patch. The faithful shop with intensity, then visit under the shade of the pecan trees. Carol Ann and Larry seem to be part of each conversation, of every transaction. They are the market. When it finally ends, everyone is exhausted.

“Why do you keep doing it,” I ask?

Carol Ann pauses to consider, then says, “Because we enjoy it. We enjoy the challenges – the change in the weather and the changes in the market. We enjoy each season. We enjoy trying to grow new things we’ve never heard of. And we enjoy the people who come out here. Given that people think this life is one they want, we’d better enjoy it!”

Boggy Creek Farm is at 3414 Lyons Rd, Austin TX 78702 or