A decade of growing food, sharing knowledge and nurturing food ecosystems in Paso Del Norte

The second plank of our Platform for Real Food calls for Opportunity for All Producers. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance small-scale, community-centered producers in providing nutritious and culturally appropriate food to all communities. Here’s how the leadership and staff of La Semilla Food Center in Anthony, New Mexico has been adapting and evolving to take on the additional challenges brought about by the pandemic. 

In early March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to capture national attention, and the state of New Mexico was about a week away from announcing a lockdown, the directors and staff of La Semilla faced their own set of tough decisions. As an organization whose operations are integral to the region’s food ecosystem, they knew that the situation would demand action on their part—they took the week to regroup and reflect. Graciously, the seasons were on their side. “One good thing,” says co-director Krysten Aguilar, who we chatted with in June, “was that the winter crops were dwindling down and spring and summer crops hadn’t started coming in yet so that gave us some breathing room for a week and a half.” 

Since their founding in 2010, La Semilla has been instrumental in connecting small producers, many of whom are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and farm on less than 10 acres of land, to both direct and institutional markets such as farmers markets, schools, and local restaurants. They also run their own mobile market program—Farm Fresh— which in addition to providing a market from small, predominantly BIPOC growers, also ensures availability of fresh produce in neighborhoods that are burdened by food apartheid. The pandemic and consequent lockdown posed an immediate challenge to this ecosystem. “When everything, including farmers markets, restaurants and schools shut down, all their orders (from our farmers) got cancelled. About a week and a half in, we had 3-4 partner farmers who had all this produce but no market to sell to. So we decided, even though we didn’t know how to pay for it yet, that for those 2-3 weeks we would purchase the order from our partner farmers and donate that to food backs which were facing a huge jump in need.” In doing so, La Semilla not only ensured the economic stability of their partner farmers, but also filled a critical need that was cropping up in food banks. As a key node in the regional food ecosystem in El Paso and Las Cruces, they were uniquely positioned to do this. 

La Semilla’s work spans across a range of areas: food production, training in agroecology and desert education, community education, and nurturing regional economy and policy. Their community farm serves as a space for training beginning farmers in agroecology and desert ecology, and growing food for the local community.

The farm sits on 14 acres that was donated to them in 2010. Though not ideal — “a national gas pipeline runs diagonally across the space limiting what can be grown or built on a large portion of it,”— it opened up a lot of possibilities. Still, there was work to be done. They spent the couple of years getting to know and rehabilitating the land.

“We were really grateful to have land donated to us but the land was in conventional cotton production for a long time, and then fallow for a while so the soil was completely depleted. We also had to fundraise to dig a well because we are in the middle of the desert where the water is incredibly salty and the water table is dropping really fast,” recalls Krysten. About an acre of the property has now been in production for seven years and the community farm has been at the core of La Semilla’s work. “It’s an educational space, a gathering place—a place in which to cultivate community and celebrate,” says Krysten.

La Semilla’s broader vision is rooted in agroecological practices tied to the global movement for agroecology, and the farm serves as a working model for that vision.  All farm staff earn living wages and have benefits and everyone, including contractors, are paid above $15 an hour. And, there is a special focus on desert ecology and rediscovering ancestral knowledge about farming in the desert. “The desert is actually incredibly abundant but we’ve forgotten how to feed ourselves from the desert — in some cases we’ve had the knowledge of how to feed ourselves from the desert wiped out from us ,” explained Krysten. In addition to crops like tomatoes and peppers, they focus on desert edibles and medicines. 

Many partner farmers that participate in the Farm Fresh program are those that have gone through workshops and training at La Semilla’s farm. Regional universities focus almost exclusively on conventional agriculture so in addition to access to land and capital, the lack of training is a critical barrier for beginning farmers who want to practice regenerative agriculture techniques. La Semilla is one of the few farms in the region that provide this training. Another barrier is access to markets: consistent buyers that have an understanding of the realities of unconventional farming are hard to come by. La Semilla creates a stable market for them by acting as an aggregator, connecting them to buyers and redirecting their partner farmers’ produce to their other programs like the Farm Fresh Program. 

Co-director Cristina Dominguez addressing students on La Semilla’s farm

Sharing knowledge and learning with the community is integral to La Semilla’s vision. Apart from the beginning farmer training, their Edible Education program partners with local elementary and middle schools, and teachers to provide students with hands-on experience in growing and cooking fruits, while their community education program focuses on knowledge-sharing and community based learning for local residents. La Semilla’s policy and community development work focuses on changing the landscape on a regional level, and is rooted in shifting policy and strategic planning to transform the regional food system in Paso Del Norte to one where all communities can eat healthful, culturally appropriate food and where small, local producers can thrive. For example, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) invests in  small producers as a way to provide fresh, nutritious food to communities. 

Once the quarantine began in New Mexico, things had to shift across all programs. On-site training ceased for a while, training curriculum was adjusted to focus more on food safety, and La Semilla’s Farm Fresh program began to offer curbside pick up to their customers. “The hardest part has been figuring out how to keep the farm team and staff safe. Putting protocols in place and social distancing and creating operating features for the farm and office has been a lot of work,” says Krysten. The Edible Education program moved online — over 50 teachers signed up to get boxes of produce and took online cooking classes that integrated nutrition education. La Semilla’s existing connections with local farmers, communities, educators and institutions turned out to be especially critical during this unprecedented time. “Our washing path was too small to allow social distancing but luckily, schools were willing to accept unwashed produce for a period of time.”

Though the pandemic highlighted the need for stronger regional food systems, it also bought a fresh set of immediate policy challenges. Krysten points out that “farmers were being left out of the food assistance program, and the first stimulus package for small business did not include farmers at all.” Even after resources were made available, they were not easily accessible. “There is a disconnect between people’s capacity and the work it takes to access federal resources. Even for us, it was an ordeal to apply for the Payment Protection Program (PPP). Our small farmers don’t have that time and capacity, or the information as the resources are not easily available in Spanish.” 

Since March 202, La Semilla has moved further along in adapting to the new normal and evolving their mission to include the learnings from their collective experience. Last month, they celebrated 10 years of operation, and this week they kicked off a virtual summer camp. But more changes are on the way: “our work is evolving. As co-directors, Christina and I feel that there is more urgency around producing food. We don’t have unlimited resources to put into this but when things started to fall apart, that felt like an important thing to do. We need to be growing more food.”

Featured Images: La Semilla Food Center