For just over two years, Mountain View Market Farm has been doing its part to keep Las Cruces and the Mesilla Valley sustainable. Located on 2.5 acres of land southwest of Las Cruces in Mesilla, where Calle de Sur and Snow Road intersect, the farm, as it is simply known, has become a success story of sorts by relying on community volunteers to provide locally grown produce the old fashioned way; free of chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
“We grow what is considered specialty crops,” said Farm Administrator Nicole Fuchs. “We value the theory that we only grow what grows well here. We would never try to grow lemons or avocados here, even though people love them, because that’s not what grows well in our climate, our soil or with our water availability.”
Mountain View Market General Manager Shihad Mustafa estimates that maybe only 20 percent of the produce sold at the Market in Las Cruces comes from the farm. A large portion of what’s grown there is shipped out to local restaurants like The Bean in Mesilla, Si Bistro in Las Cruces and several businesses in El Paso, including Adrovinos Market, Tom’s Folk Café, the Hello Day Café and Crave.
“We just don’t have the variety or the volume to fully serve the market,” he said. “It’s about what we expected when we started. And the Co-op can’t fully support the farm, by itself. That’s why it’s good to have restaurants and other people purchasing.”
That is the key to sustainability, according to both Mustafa and Fuchs. In fact, when the Market board was originally looking at ways to grow within the community, the notion of creating their own food producing opportunity rated high, because they realized that that most of the food they sold was imported from California and Mexico.
“We looked to see where the local producers were and what we found is that this is a waning opportunity for us,” Mustafa said. “There was one certified organic producer and just a couple of others who were producing naturally. Most others were considering retirement. We thought that was critical. Where are we going to be in ten years if we don’t’ have any local producers and we’re totally dependent on California and Mexico for our food? When this opportunity came up, we decided to take advantage of it and do what we could do to help the situation.”
The opportunity came in the form of a small farm that was being run by a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group from Albuquerque called Los Poblanos. When word got out that Los Poblanos was shutting down, Mustafa and his board swung into action.
“We got in touch with them and said we would like to take over the operation and see what we can produce,” Mustafa said. The farm began operation in October 2011, with the help of community volunteers from all walks of life, according to Fuchs.
“We have volunteer hours twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from 9am to noon,” Fuchs said. “We get a real mix of people who come – master gardners, retirees, youth, college kids. Some of them only come once, some come several times and some are regulars.”
Operating a working farm was never meant as a final solution, Mustafa said, but rather as a means to an end. “My dream is to have 15 of these farms all over the region,” he said. “What I would love to see is that these individual producers develop their own cooperative. We can continue to support them, but what we provide more than anything else is admin support and marketing opportunities. We have the infrastructure, we have connections, we need them to produce and allow us to help them with their marketing so that the food gets out to where it needs to go.”
The culmination of Mustafa’s dream would be to create a sustainable system throughout the state. “We are trying to develop a food share across New Mexico,” he said. “The potential isn’t just what we can grow for us, but what we can grow for the entire state. That’s where the real opportunity is. The Co-op isn’t going to buy all of the food that is produced, but there are six or seven other Co-ops in the state that are always looking for producers, along with other stores.”
As with any dream, it takes trial and error to find the best ways to accomplish set goals. Always looking for innovative ways to grow the operation, Mustafa, Fuchs and Farm Manager Lori Garton recently introduced yet another opportunity to the farm. In September, they unveiled a new aquaponics system and in mid-October, a second aquaponics greenhouse was introduced. Both greenhouses are geared not only for the raising of crops, but fish as well.
“Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture, which is the raising and maintaining of fish, and hydroponics, which is raising vegetables without soil,” Mustafa explained. “Combining the two, what you do is create a system where you have fish creating waste, which actually feeds the plants. The plants in turn filter the water, which goes back to the fish.”
Both greenhouses were introduced by Mustafa, the first after a visit to Milwaukee where he saw the system in use to grow produce in adverse environments via an enclosed system, and the second after a workshop in Colorado, which was slightly different, but equally exciting.
The first system uses a three tiered environment in which a large trough is sunk into the ground and filled with water and goldfish. The water is then pumped up to the top tier, which is filled with a clay pellet media called Hydroton. The water is filtered there and dropped down into the second tier, where the plants are grown in small trays filled with a combination of worm casting and coconut core. The roots of the plants further filter the water, while also wicking up the nutrients left by the fish in the water. The now clean water is then dropped down into the fish trough again.
“What we’re growing here is microgreens,” Mustafa said, “which is a combination of radish, tatsoi, kale, sunflower sprouts and wheatgrass. It changes depending on what seeds we have.”
The second aquaponics system only consists of two tiers and utilizes what is called a “raft” system. In this system the water is pumped up from two 250 gallon troughs, filled with around 50 trout each, into a long tray filled with polylstyrene floats. The floats have holes cut into them every three or four inches and small plastic baskets to hold the plants. The water simply flows underneath the floats, where the exposed roots filter the water before it reaches the drop pipe that sends the water back into the fish trough.
“We’re going to grow lettuce and tatsoi, things like that in here,” Mustafa said. “One of the big differences with this system is you can grow really tall plants. We can grow collard greens, chard, mustard greens and kale with no problem.”
And don’t forget the fish. Procured from the Mescalero Tribal Fish Hatchery by Fuchs, the trout is expected to grow to between eight and ten inches, making them yet another sustainable food item that can be provided by the farm.
“We’re hoping that our success in growing fish in the aquaponics system matches our success in growing vegetables,” said Fuchs. “That’s one of our goals.”
Though both systems are relatively new, the administrators of the farm have high hopes for what they can do for the community.
“This is more for demonstration purposes,” Mustafa said. “It’s not big enough to grow a ton of food, but it’s enough to demonstrate what can be done with this system. Ultimately I’d like to see an aquaponics system that’s four times this size. Believe it or not, because it sounds and looks like this uses a lot of water, it’s about a tenth of the amount of water that’s being used in a row system, because it keeps recirculating. Something like this could go in somebody’s backyard and feed a family, easily.”
True to his word, Mustafa has unveiled a schedule of aquaponics workshops, aimed at teaching interested parties how to create their own sustainable food system. It’s all part of the mission of the farm and its parent organization, the Mountain View Market. Not necessarily to grow crops for sale, so much as to create opportunities for people to learn how to do it themselves.
“What we really like to do here with this farm is encourage more production,” Mustafa said. “We don’t want to grow in acreage, we want to grow producers. We want to encourage more people to take this on, develop more markets for it and demonstrate what can be done. We hope that more young people, especially, will start to contribute to this agricultural economy that was historically what people relied on in this area. We’ve lost so much of that and we’re hoping we can bring it back.”
An excerpted version of this story appeared in the November 15, 2013 issue of the Las Cruces Bulletin. All right reserved.