Steve Warshawer tosses around words like biodynamic agriculture, dual-purpose breeding, decentralized relationship systems and principles of transparency like the breeze tosses the feathers of his 500 chickens. As we traipse through coops, Steve collects eggs amid the gentle cacophony of chirps and squawks from his black, white and zebra striped hens, explaining the issues of concern to Mesa Top Farm. His egg, bird and vegetable farming enterprise is just eight miles from Santa Fe-eight miles and a world away over dirt roads and through numerically coded gates.
"We're moving from a more institutionally bred chicken that's reliant on industrially produced feed, to hatching and rearing our own stock that eats locally indigenous grains," he says. By local, he means produced within 250 miles of the 360 acres he owns and the 450 he leases.
A custom blend nourishes his stock: mostly small grains of wheat, triticale (a wheat/rye hybrid), hull-less oats and field peas, supplemented with a high protein soy and corn supplement. Even the supplement is locally sourced from Embudo Valley Organics.
Steve's been interested in biodynamic agriculture (a fancy way of talking about the idea of a farm as a living system, each part of the system working in harmony with another) since he was a teen in Massachusetts. Introducing outside elements into the system, like chemical insecticides, herbicides and antibiotics, or elements not native to an area, like feeds and crops from outside a bioregion, throws the system out of balance. Ultimately, the system is less productive and will fail, he asserts.
Technology in service to humans, not profits, is his mantra, and the principle by which he's run his farm since he started with 100 mail order chickens and a vegetable garden in 1994. Those first chickens, Rhode Island Reds, were too bossy, not hale through New Mexico's winters' and not big enough to eat. A more resourceful breed, in both senses of the word, was needed.
The current genetic strain he calls Barred Rock Beneficial Farm, is a dual-purpose breed. Big enough to eat and good egg layers, these birds hardily handle the chill of our winters as well as the heat of New Mexico's summers. They don't stop laying in winter like other breeds, either, providing a year-round source of eggs.
These birds live free range, separated by age, with a few roosters proudly strutting among the hens. They provide manure for the two acres of vegetables the farm grows each year. The farm has had as many as 800 chickens, but Steve's customers expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of the eggs when at this peak of production. "I don't know what it was," he shrugs. "But we listened, cut back and have found a good balance."
He also found a unique solution to the problem of too many chickens. "I found other producers, mostly ranchers and farmers already used to having livestock, who were willing to take the hens and sell the eggs. That's how Beneficial Farm started."
The Beneficial Farm and Ranch Collaborative, as it is now called, comprises 12 farms and ranches operating under its collective non-profit umbrella in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Six of those independent farms produce eggs, using the feed and stock regimen Steve developed. Others produce honey, vegetables and fruits and soon, beef.
"By relying on local stock and local small grains to feed the stock, we also increase the relationship between local producers. We all save money on transportation by pooling resources, rely on increased purchasing capacity for supplies and have more bargaining power with retailers."
Though the individual farms use all organic principles, the collective has chosen not to pursue organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Organic as a label is like natural as a label. It doesn't mean anything anymore. The organic industry has been taken over by large scale industry that doesn't adhere to the idea that locally grown food and related products should also be raised with appropriate scales and ecological practices in mind."
Instead, the Beneficial Farm and Ranch Collaborate promotes a new paradigm in agricultural product branding, he continues, one that reestablishes the connection between local farms, ranches, independent stores and their customers.
"The name Beneficial, and the label defines a set of beliefs and meaning for us and our customers. We know that we are using humane and appropriate livestock techniques, appropriate farming methods for the area and that all our members are adhering to our internal guidelines." Quality assurance for the collective's retail partners is guaranteed, too, providing a potent venue for local farmers to sell their products to eager consumers. The demand for their products exceeds supply, Steve adds, pointing to a true resonance with customers.
"We've worked with retailers like Cids in Taos, Whole Foods in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and the La Montanita Co-ops in both cities to determine pricing. We showed them that consumers are willing to pay more, sometimes 50 percent more, for beautiful, tasty, well-presented local products. The flavor, freshness and appearance guaranteed by the Beneficial Farms label means something to them."
The farms and ranches of the collaborative are learning from one another, too. "This year, we're using our experiences operating a CSA (community supported agriculture) effort in Colorado to form one in New Mexico. By pooling resources, farms can bring a better mix of vegetables, eggs and other consumables to market, supported by members of the public who buy shares," Steve says, of the decentralized relationship system that keeps collective members working in harmony.
Steve's marketing savvy and understanding of economics, honed through years of experience, trial and error, and a philosophical base from his three years at St. John's College have brought this marketer turned farmer full circle.
"Our goal at Mesa Top Farm is to become economically self-sufficient. We aren't there yet, and have subsisted on a combination of outside work, grants and money generated from the farm. Our goal is to create an endowment to support the maintenance, operating costs and salaries of the farmers. But restoring this way of life doesn't generate enough revenue to support itself. We need an alternative source of income to support it."
Toward that end, Steve plans to sell part of his farm for home sites. "We've got Santa Fe priced land here and we sit on a natural seismic fault that had resulted in springs for water." Even this project, though, is being conceived with a sense of sustainability in mind. "We'll have several hundred acres of open space that must remain that way in perpetuity," he adds.
Once the endowment is in place, and Steve can turn over daily operation of the farm to other, younger folks, he'll concentrate on developing more members and outreach efforts of the collaborative.
"I started out marketing and working for farmers, always wanting to be the farmer. Now that I've been the farmer, I'm interested in being the marketer and teacher again."
Beneficial Farm produce and products are a must at local, natural food stores and farmers' markets in the area. For more information on Beneficial Farms and Ranch Collaborative, visit www.beneficialfarms.org