How One Borderland Farm Is Planting the Seeds of Food Justice

New Mexico’s La Semilla is working to address the acute hunger and poverty that exist along the U.S.-Mexico border.
(Photo: La Semilla/Facebook)
Nov 14, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Wearing hats to block the midday New Mexico sun, the summer campers crouched in the rows of the 14-acre La Semilla Community Farm would soon break for lunch. In the full kitchen at the nearby La Semilla offices, they made tortillas and cooked recipes with chia, nopales, amaranth, and other fresh vegetables grown on the farm.

“There was a day there was no nopales left,” La Semilla’s Elena Acosta said, laughing. “They ate it all up.”

At the geographic center of the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border sits the Paso del Norte region, a tri-state area where El Paso, Texas; Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; and Las Cruces, New Mexico, meet. It’s here that La Semilla—which means “the seed”—is sowing a healthy, more equitable food system. With a recent $825,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in the coffers, hope grows in Doña Ana County, New Mexico, which La Semilla calls home and where 39 percent of children live in poverty.

Cofounded by Aaron Sharratt, Cristina Dominguez-Eshelman, and Rebecca Wiggins-Reinhard in 2010, the farm grew out of community garden work and the realization that there was a need for an organization dedicated to addressing the challenges of the local food system.

“They took on a task that seems monumental to me because people in our region are so unfamiliar with food justice issues and food systems. It takes a lot of education,” Catherine Yanez, an educator at La Semilla, told Borderzine in 2013.

“Our organization came out of a variety of different backgrounds,” Krysten Aguilar, director of programs and policy, told TakePart, from people “who are really looking at the food system holistically.” Board of directors President Lois Stanford, for example, is an associate professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University; she recently won a national award for her work with La Semilla. “It was really important to look at it through that lens of the whole system,” Aguilar said.

The La Semilla food bus. (Photo: La Semilla/Facebook)

That meant a focus on not only food but the land. When La Semilla first began, it inherited farmland that had once been used for conventional cotton production and then lay fallow for a few years.

“The soil was close to dead,” Aguilar said. Through principles of regenerative agriculture and permaculture—planting hedgerows for windbreak, covering crops to minimize erosion, attracting native pollinators, and planting drought-tolerant perennials suited to the Chihuahuan Desert—the farm now serves as a vibrant centerpiece for the group’s outreach work. Since its founding, La Semilla has taught thousands of elementary and middle school students in 24 schools (and counting) how to grow and cook fresh food. It also brings youths back to the farm for apprenticeship programs and community events.

Every spring on the farm, a woman with extensive knowledge in traditional indigenous ceremonies leads the community in a blessing of seeds and the land, and people are welcome to bring the seeds they would like blessed for an abundant growing season. At an annual Día de los Muertos ceremony to honor those who have been lost, there is music, a potluck dinner, offerings of food, papel picado banners, and planting by moonlight.

“It’s really touching to see people really show appreciation for the place that we come from and to try to take care of it, to come together and truly appreciate the earth and what it has to offer us,” Aguilar said.

If cared for and properly tended, it has a lot to offer. In 2014, the United States imported $8.9 billion in fresh fruits and vegetables from Mexico, 98 percent of which entered the country through inland ports between Mexico and Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. Yet the communities around these points of entry are areas of need.

“Despite the enormous volume of produce flowing down food superhighways crossing the border at Nogales, San Diego, El Paso, or McAllen, there are few ‘exit ramps’ for that food to reach the poor living along the border,” Gary Nabhan wrote in a 2012 report Hungry for Change: Borderlands Food and Water in the Balance.

In New Mexico, 17 percent of the population is food insecure. The state also has the highest rate of child poverty in the country, NPR reported, a statistic lambasted in an online video from April made in response to a New Mexico tourism campaign.

“This is New Mexico,” goes the parody, “where we celebrate our unique cuisine and turn a blind eye to our hungry children.”

Among farmworkers from the Mexican border, the rate of poverty is 66 percent higher than that of the average resident of the state, according to Hungry for Change. “We have farmworkers and people of color who pick food but aren’t able to afford food,” Aguilar said. Many times, they can’t access it at all. Nationally, there are on average about 20 grocery stores per 100,000 people, according to Aguilar; in the Paso del Norte region, it’s half that.

La Semilla is closing the gap with a new mobile market funded with help from a USDA Community Food Projects grant. The retrofitted bus makes eight stops per week in underserved areas and not only sells produce from La Semilla’s farm but also provides a market opportunity for other small local farms that produce eggs and lamb and goat meat. The mobile market accepts SNAP and WIC and uses Double Up Food bucks, a program that provides an extra dollar for every food-stamp dollar spent.

The farm is also in the process of establishing a Healthy Food Financing Fund, which will launch in mid-2017. The revolving, low-interest loan program for small businesses will help bring healthy food to areas that need it, providing start-up capital for, say, people who want to begin to grow and sell food on land they have access to, or those who want to reopen a corner grocery store in a neighborhood without one.

Aguilar called it “meaningful economic development from the bottom up,” and the program will provide not just seed capital but technical assistance along the way, including business planning, marketing, and promotion.

“All of our work is grounded in this reality that our community that we live in has an ability to determine its own food destiny. What’s lacking is access to opportunities,” she said. La Semilla’s work in creating opportunities, she said, is “reconnecting people to those links between food and culture and health.” There’s something too that courses beneath the issues like an aquifer, ready to be tapped, the water rushing to the surface.

“Equity underlies a lot of these issues,” Aguilar said.