October 27, 2014
On a simple plywood board, the vision of Las Cruces began to take shape. Gathered on the southern New Mexico city’s downtown mall for a recent fall evening, impromptu artists dropped lentils, black beans and pumpkin and sunflower seeds into a mural-like sun design bearing a message: “Las Cruces Urban Agriculture.”
The community-created artwork was among numerous activities at what was billed as the first annual farm-to-school festivity in New Mexico’s second largest city. Drawing participants of all ages, the event offered seed art, pumpkin painting, food trucks, local brews, tastings of locally grown food, an outdoor movie on urban farming, and animal exhibits for the young ones.
The purpose of the celebration was “to showcase, to educate and to outreach” with the public about the possibilities of bringing the farm to the city and its schools, said Krysten Aguilar, food planning and policy coordinator for the non-profit La Semilla Food Center. “We’re working on this urban agriculture here in Las Cruces, to grow and support transitioning growing food in the city.”
In addition to La Semilla, other sponsors of the event included Project Main Street, the Mesilla Valley Food Policy Council and the City of Las Cruces. The New Mexico State University Cooperation Extension Service was on hand to distribute practical information on matters like starting a food business, safely storing food and cooking the staple New Mexican green chile.
Rebecca Wiggins, La Semilla’s farm-to-school coordinator, told FNS that almost anything is possible with urban farming, including beekeeping and honey producing. Poised behind a stand, Wiggins served thick, full-bodied samples of local natural honey. Right off the bat, the Mesilla Valley beekeeper distinguished her honey from commercial varieties found on many store shelves or in the little plastic packets sometimes served with sopapillas in New Mexican restaurants, both of which contain high fructose corn syrup, she said.
A woman stopped to taste a sample of Wiggin’s honey, turning the chatter in the direction of economics and ecology after she remarked that a lot of the commercial honey sold in the U.S. comes from China.
According to a 2012 report by the U.S. International Trade Commission, U.S. honey imports from China hit 70.8 million lbs. in 2006, plunged to 148,000 lbs. in 2009, the depths of the Great Recession, and stabilized at 3.4 million lbs. in both 2010 and 2011.
Overall U.S. honey imports from all countries roughly doubled in the period between 1998 and 2011 from about 150 million lbs. to the 300 million-lb. range, according to the report.
Wiggins stressed the importance of cultivating and protecting local honey.
“The biggest challenge is educating more people about taking care of the bees and being more conscious about the pesticides they’re using, because they’re losing colonies across the Valley and the world,” Wiggins said. “There’s a ton of debate about what is actually causing (bee) colony collapse-pesticides being one of them.”
Las Cruces’ celebration of urban farming and local food did not feature ribbon awards to the various stands, but if it had done so Tae-Young Nam and his pasta booth might well have been the first-place winner. On a glorious fall evening, Young Nam’s booth was a big hit, as a steady parade of tasters sampled his organic ratatouille pasta, whipped up with locally-grown egg plant, squash, basil and olive oil.
“Would you like a lot or a little?” the friendly pasta man asked a guest.
“Can I have some?” queried another eager, prospective diner.
“All locally grown,” the server assured hungry eyes.
But credit for Young Nam’s instantaneous culinary rave should be given to the chefs of Sierra Vista Middle School who prepared the batch for the celebration.
A member of the FoodCorps Service, Young Nam collaborates with La Semilla and other partners in a farm-to-school program underway in several local schools. The program’s components include school gardens, tastings, nutrition lessons, and after-school activities.
“If a child sows their own seed and watches it grow and picks it there is a connection,” Young Nam said about lessons young hands and minds learn from a program that he described as “fun” at the same time.
“Our goal would be to have every school have a school garden and an edible education curriculum,” Wiggins added.
In a broad and historical sense, Las Cruces’ first fall celebration of farming in the city spins the local urban-rural nexus. For centuries, the surrounding Mesilla Valley has hosted Native American, Mexicano, Chicano, African-American, Japanese, and Anglo farmers. As commercial agriculture developed in the 20th century, Las Cruces developed as the banking, research and mercantile hub of the rural economy.
Although the City of Crosses and Dona Ana County continue to undergo urbanization, farming still has an important place in the local economy. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Dona Ana County counted 2,184 farms and ranches covering 659,970 acres, which generated $351,032,000 in product sales. The southern New Mexico border county was rated No. 1 among counties nationwide in pecan production for the United States.
Now, food activists like La Semilla’s Krysten Aguilar intend to create a food system in which schools, empty lots and even plant pots lining downtown streets are the mini-farms of a new, green urban landscape.
“I think (urban farming) is just beginning to get going,” Aguilar said. And events like the October evening on the downtown mall serve “to show elected officials this has a lot of support and it’s good for the community,” she added.
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