Taos has an especially short growing season, perhaps one of the shortest in the state. This fact alone makes farming in the area hard work. Add the task of predicting how much material to grow to satisfy the changing demand of the area markets and local restaurants, and farmers can often end up with what is known as a "bumper crop" - or an excess amount of one kind of vegetable or fruit for the season.
As farmers around the area deal with calculating how much to grow, and many of them ending up with more than they can sell at the market, some are hoping an injection of fresh ideas into an old system can help provide them with a paid outlet for their excess crops while helping sustain local people who still don't have enough to eat.
Fiona Lee and her partner Christopher Bergner run CopperPot Farms in Llano Quemado, where they grow a large variety of food to sell at the Taos Farmers Market and to local restaurants like the Love Apple and the Farmhouse Cafe. However, the problem that comes with trying to grow a variety of different foods comes with a cost of waste. "It's something that we've consistently been dealing with for years," said Lee of the farmers bumper crops.
Lee said with the addition of more kids to the family, their presence at markets around the Enchanted Circle has lessened. Now they just sell at the Taos Farmers Market. Because of this, she said "we end up with just hundreds of pounds of stuff that we then try to find other homes for." After exhausting all other measures to sell their produce, some of it ends up as chicken food.
This is where Lee and others feel there might be a creative solution: "surplus purchase guarantees," (SPGs) - or a commitment by a government entity to buy any surplus produce farmers may end up with. The government would then redistribute the excess food to those in need, at least in theory.
"It seems really simple and obvious that there's people that are already on food assistance programs, and instead of buying from big [agriculture], they could be buying up from the farmers whatever isn't being sold… at the market. "It's really not like 'what about us farmers?' It would just make more sense to have all this local food, have all these hungry people and connect the food with the people."
All in all, it's about sustainability, she said. "Being a self-sustaining community is something that we should be going for. I think that's not even a concept, and for a lot of people they're not thinking about it. They're used to the ease of going to the grocery store… They're thinking the trucks are gonna keep coming forever."
At Old Gem Farm in Trampas, Roslyn Weiss is dealing with the same issue, and said the lack of a good program to connect hungry mouths with local food is a problem that should be addressed. Weiss described going to market with lots of food and leaving with much of it as "discouraging." She said they would often "be left with produce and nothing to do with it. And it just seems like a waste of energy and a waste of food."
Weiss explained the work that was done in order to try to get rid of leftover food after the markets. "Sometimes we would attempt to sell it, and it would get turned down," she said. "And that would be really discouraging." She described "a scramble to try to find a home for the food, and you're already tired and you've been up at 4 a.m. and it's not exactly what you want to be trying to figure out at that point."
For these reasons, the idea of SPGs for local farms is "super appealing" to Weiss. "Having a guaranteed outlet for it makes a lot of sense - you'd get some money for your produce and your time and the food wouldn't go to waste," she said, adding that she would love to see the town or county "support local farmers in that way."
Peter Dougan has been farming in Taos for nearly 50 years. He learned the hard way that specialty crops, especially when in excess, are hard to get rid of. After growing a wide variety of produce on his "Dixon Farm & Agricultural Plot," Dougan now sticks to what he knows will last and sell, planting just carrots, onions and winter squash, "so that I won't have to deal with the perishability of stuff."
He said that "unless you're interested in calling and hustling the restaurants," it was currently easier to grow a smaller variety. He said he dealt with local restaurants for years but has since decided it was in his best interest to change up his growing plan.
Dougan said he fully supports the idea of SPGs for bumper crops and said it would allow him to expand his operation. "I have more land that could be utilized... and if I had a guarantee of purchase, I would do all those things. People want carrots, onions and winter squash, but they also want spinach and all those other things that you've got to move right away."
Another positive change Dougan sees with SPGs is the localization of food, making for a more sustainable economy and planet. He said when he has volunteered in the past at the St. James Food Pantry, he "saw trucks come in with cantaloupes and watermelons and all this stuff, all from out of state." His conclusion: "The more we can grow stuff here - it would help the farmers, it would be better produce, and more nutrition to the people directly. And it would take all those trucks off the road… we've got to be local as much as possible.
"Food is the number one cure for hunger, and it'll always be needed. The closer we can do it to home the better we all are ecologically," said Dougan.
While some farmers have been dealing with excess crops, others said they had either gotten lucky or had gotten surpluses down to a science.
Hendrix Johnston, owner of Umami Gardens, said he was lucky to not have tons of excess produce this year. "We've been really successful at getting rid of everything we're growing," said Johnston. "Literally, we've only thrown away less than $100 of food."
He acknowledged he may not always be so lucky. "That might change for me. We are looking for more property and a bigger place, and things don't always flow smoothly." He said the situation could also change with demand, and said he can relate with those who end up with too much leftover produce. "People work really hard," he said. "You spend a lot of hours in the hot sun to grow this food and then it ends up just being chicken food."
For this reason, Johnston said he is also behind the idea of SPGs. He said the quality of food served in public schools, detention centers, homeless shelters and mental institutions usually isn't high quality. "I'm sure all these people could benefit from fresh food," he said.
One thing he said he was not certain a program like SPGs would provide was fair market pricing. "We're definitely not going to get direct sale pricing like at the farmers market, but I know if you're in that situation [of having excess]... I'm guessing that most people would be okay with taking a little bit of a loss, making some money rather than no money and benefiting a good cause."
Another farmer, Daniel Carmona at Cerro Vista Farms, said intense planning and 43 years of experience have left him in a position where he does not have to deal with bumper crops. "I only plant what I can sell. I don't ever have any extra," he said. His bottom line: "you don't plant stuff unless you know you can sell it. That's insane."
One thing he said he got away from years ago, like Dougan, was planting anything too perishable. "If it requires a lot of refrigeration [or] it's highly perishable, then it's just out of the question," he said.
Carmona said he felt plenty of programs already exist to support farmers, including food banks receiving grant money to buy local produce and the Double Up Food Bucks program through SNAP, which gives residents double the amount of money if they spend it on fresh local produce.
"I think it's unrealistic to expect the government to step in and help beyond the kind of programs that are already running," he said.
When he used to run the Taos Farmers Market, Carmona said he would constantly be asked what they were going to do with the leftover produce. "And I say, 'Well, why don't you invent some programs? Why don't you donate to a food bank? ... Why don't you do something about it?' Instead, people want the government [to help]. The county isn't in the business of selling food."
Carmona sells his produce at the farmers markets but also manages his own CSA (community supported agriculture) program, in which community members pay a yearly fee in advance and are given whatever crops are seasonally available. That way, all of the food is spoken for. He said his CSA accounts for about 50 percent of his income.
Fiona Lee acknowledged the options of running a CSA but said she wanted to see good food go to everyone, not just those who could afford it. "We aren't just wanting [food] to go to the wealthier privileged folks who can afford the market prices. We'd love most of all to be seeing micronutrient dense, local, organic food going to those in need in our community."
Even though Carmona said he doesn't think farmers should be "looking for a handout," he said he still supports the expansion of government food programs if it's the will of the people. "I think that food is a human right and… anything that we can do to feed people with better quality food and plenty of it, including children and everyone else, is a wonderful thing. If the government wants to step in and do something to make it better, I'd vote for it."