NMSU Cooperative Extension Service assists start-up co-op to help new farmers

WRITER: carlopez
CONTACT: Jason Lamb, 575-461-2899, jalamb

Between 2007 and 2012, the number of beginning farmers – principal operators who were on their current operation for 10 years or less – in the United States declined by about 20 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent census data.

However, beginning farmers in 2012 still accounted for one-quarter of the nation’s 2.1 million farmers, operated 25 percent of U.S. farms, controlled 16 percent of farmland and produced 15 percent of the value of agricultural products sold, the census figures showed. According to the USDA, one of the biggest challenges facing new farmers and ranchers is access to land.

To help new farmers access land, New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service in Quay County has partnered with the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Cooperative Development Center to establish a regional food-shed cooperative called the TableTop Co-op.

With assistance from the Quay County Extension Office and the RMFU Cooperative Development Center, the TableTop Co-op is preparing to launch its first initiative: A program designed to assist new farmers in Quay County and surrounding areas with access to land and water resources to start their own agricultural operations. The program also will connect new farmers with mentors who can provide guidance and support as they develop operations.

Called the Land Access and Mentorship Program, the initiative works like similar programs in the country, linking new farmers with landowners, who’ve pledged to offer sections of their land for start-up farming operations through lease agreements or other arrangements.

“While this type of program isn’t new – there are land-access programs around the country, including some we have learned from in Colorado and New England – it’s a newer concept in New Mexico,” said Jason Lamb, an agricultural agent for the Quay County Extension Office who has been involved in the planning and development of the mentorship program.

“Because land is often so expensive, beginning farmers cannot get started in farming unless they have help in some way. Our program hopes to address this issue,” Lamb said.

Through the program, the co-op hopes to spur interest in farming by giving new producers access to land at little or no cost while bolstering economic development in Quay County and the region along New Mexico’s Interstate 40 corridor, which is part of the USDA planning initiative called “Stronger Economies Together.”

“I believe this program will have a direct impact on our local agricultural community as far as providing jobs for our local people interested in farming, and it also will help utilize the land that is not being used,” Lamb said.

According to Susann Mikkelson, a cooperative development specialist with the RMFU Development Center who has helped facilitate the planning and development of the TableTop Co-op, local producers and business owners first initiated the concept of a food-shed cooperative in Quay County and the surrounding region about a year ago.

She said the effort started as a desire among those involved to establish something similar to a community-supported agriculture, or CSA system. However, during the initial planning stages, she and others realized Quay County would need more producers to meet local market demands.

“The goals have grown and evolved over time,” she said, “and we determined that if we really wanted to reach local and regional markets, we needed to develop the production side first.”

The group settled on establishing a co-op system and moved forward with establishing a land access and mentorship initiative. The co-op’s stakeholders include local farmers, ranchers and business owners; the Greater Tucumcari Economic Development Corporation; Tucumcari MainStreet; NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service; and the RMFU Co-op Center.

“The goals of TableTop Co-op are much greater than this beginning farmer and rancher initiative, which is a big undertaking in and of itself,” Mikkelson said. “Their goals encompass, really, the spectrum of a value chain system for a foodshed. They are ambitious and visionary goals that will take some time to formulate, but parts or all of this effort could become a model that might be adapted and replicated all around the state, and the Southwest.”

During an exploratory meeting in June, Lamb said, seven mentors and 11 landowners signed up to participate in the mentorship program, offering more than 4,200 acres of land for participants to use. At a subsequent meeting in August, 11 people signed up as beginning farmers, he said.

“We had so much interest and it was definitely an indication that people in Quay County wanted to support our beginning farmers,” he said. “Our next step is to try to link the land and landowners with our beginning farmers.”

Over the coming months, Mikkelson will work with landowners and beginning farmers in the program to help them formalize land- and water-use contracts, she said. At the same time, the co-op will begin to offer mentorship and more formal training and education opportunities for beginning producers. Then, the new farmers will start producing.

Currents partnerships include an aquaponics operation and a pilot land-link agreement between one well-established farmer in Tucumcari and a new farmer, who started growing and selling vegetables at the Tucumcari Farmers Market, among other markets.

Mikkelson said the mentorship program is targeted to anyone interested in starting a farming or ranching operation, not just young farmers.

“It’s about expanding production and helping anyone who wants to begin farming or ranching, not just young people, but people who are coming out of other careers,” she said. “We see a lot of people coming into agriculture as a second career and a different lifestyle.”

Lamb said he is hopeful that the co-op’s mentorship program will appeal to other counties in New Mexico and could be individually tailored to meet individual needs.

“One of our goals is to go regional and help other regions start similar programs,” he said.

For information about co-op and its mentorship the program, call the Quay County Extension Office at 575-461-0562 or email quay.

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