Farmer Monte’s Regional-Seasonal CSA
By Deborah Madison
It’s 94 degrees out, but when Monte Skarasgard emerges from the fields of Los Poblanos Organics the heat doesn’t seem to be slowing him down. Nor is much else. Monte runs this six-acre farm in Albuquerque’s north valley, plus a 16-acre farm in Isleta. Produce from both farms go to his 1800 CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members. Most of the recipients live in Albuquerque, but Los Poblanos Organics, also known as LPO, also delivers boxes of good farm food to 80 members in Santa Fe, 120 in Los Alamos, and more in Las Cruces.
Aside from its large size, what sets LPO apart from other New Mexican CSAs, is that, even in winter, the LPO boxes are filled with fruit and vegetables. Curious about how this CSA works, I spent a few hours with Monte under the shade of an apple tree where he talked about his vision for his unusual CSA.
Monte grew up in Albuquerque, close to where he farms today. As a kid, he took care of his parents’ two acres.
“Essentially, I learned about landscaping,” he says, “and to make money I got landscaping gigs in private homes. After a while I wanted to learn more about the botany, which I did at UC Santa Barbara. I learned through an old Japanese guy who had a private nursery; and I still use his techniques.”
But, while at the nursery, Monte was put off by people coming in with a bug problem and the belief that what they needed was a chemical. “It really rubbed me the wrong way, so I thought, why not start an organic landscape company?”
Monte had read about the agro-ecology program at UC Santa Cruz six months earlier. A seed had been planted, but it didn’t hit him until after graduation. Once he saw his future direction, he enrolled in this socially intense six-month program, in which 45 people live on a small farm in tents and learn how to farm organically.
“The communal living part was hard, but not the farm work,” Monte recalls. “I was eating the kale and strawberries out of the field and they tasted so alive I was totally bitten by [the ]organic bug and I haven’t been able to shake it.”
After completing the program, Monte worked as an intern with a farmer near Seattle. Jubilee Farm had a 220-member CSA, a little bit of farmers’ market presence, and a really big pumpkin patch.
“A river cut through the land there. The valley was the farmland; the farmhouses were on the hill. And there were different farming styles, from the two-acre to the 80-acre farm. I asked a lot of questions, then funneled what I heard through my own prism. I was thinking about Albuquerque 10 years in the future, and I thought the demand would be here. I started to mold the CSA model through that farm and the growers around there.”
So about six years ago, Monte returned to New Mexico and started to farm on the Los Poblanos land with the intention of growing a CSA. “I was thinking it would be great if we got maybe a couple of hundred members, but news of LPO exploded. The desire to have organic food and be part of the movement was strong. You had people moving here to work at Intel who had been CSA members before, and here we were, the only CSA. It’s gone way beyond what I thought would happen.”
Flexibility is very important in this CSA. A customer can go to the website and tailor her delivery, adding such items as New Mexican organic pecans and peanut butter, Sage bread, and eggs from Beneficial Farms. Or not. A member can put in some hours on the farm in exchange for a half-price share, as is frequently true of CSAs. What’s unusual is that the produce doesn’t taper off during the winter when the farm isn’t producing. And that’s because Monte brings in produce from Colorado, Texas and California. This is a regional CSA. It’s not purely local, but let’s be honest: we go way outside our foodshed every time we go to the store and buy Cal-organic carrots, and Washington (or new Zealand!) apples, which we all do for many months of the year. Monte is just up front about it. He isn’t gong outside these four states, and he’s bringing in different foods from those you find at Whole Foods or Smiths.
“We look for regional growers in these states, as well as New Mexico, and that way I can put together a killer box of produce 52 weeks out of the year. We use our farm as the epicenter and build out from there. If we need more, we get it from one of the other states. Everyone we work with is certified organic because I want to promote clean growing as much as anything – even over local – and, if we have a large market presence, there’s an incentive for farmers to go organic and stop dumping pesticides into the Rio Grande.”
Monte works with blueberry growers in Texas and fruit farmers in Colorado. Because he acts as the middleman, he’s able to offer the fruit to members at a good price. Regarding California, Monte buys from a broker called Veritable Vegetable, or VV, a produce company that sources from small scale, high quality farms rather than 1000-acre fields. I’m quite familiar with VV and many of the farms they buy from. If you’re getting food from California, this is what you want. It’s tasty and alive, and the turnaround time from loading the truck in San Francisco to getting it here is a matter of a few days.
What this means for the CSA member is that a typical winter box will have 10 or 11 items, including at least three fruits, head lettuce, bunched spinach, potatoes, onions, frozen green chile, maybe a winter squash and broccoli.” The chile, squash, garlic and a few other vegetables would be from the LPO; the rest gathered from the region. The boxes are consistently plentiful and varied.
In Monte’s view, the traditional CSA is kind of a lose-lose situation. “If you have a lousy year, members go to the grocery store and don’t re-up for the next year. If it’s a great first year, the member might split the order with a friend then we don’t get a new member. Plus, the expectations are high. You’ve got people saying, ‘How come there’s only one pound of tomatoes this year? Last year it was three!”
But having a consistently full, diverse box of food helps even out the peaks and valleys, soothing expectation anxieties. “And because of the diversity we offer, we can build a larger membership. The more people under our tent, the more we can support organic — and local food. We move a lot of organic produce. We concentrate on poundage, not percentages of what’s local.”
Locavores will balk at Monte’s program, but he doesn’t get bogged down in the super-local thing. “I dislike the hard lines people draw in the sand, so we aren’t under pressure to be New Mexico seasonal. Instead, this is a regional-seasonal CSA, and that’s helping people eat fresh food longer. I want them to enjoy the produce. Have that spinach salad in winter and taste that sunshine! There’s a lot to be said for the enjoyment of our food.”
By putting together food from middle-sized farms — those that are too big for a farmers market, but don’t want to get into the Whole Food’s pricing system — Monte is essentially creating an aggregated “ag in the middle” market. It’s hard to do this from New Mexican farms alone because they’re either far too small to provide the CSA, or way too big to bother — unless you aggregate, which is a good idea. But as long as we have winters, the model Monte has created is working well. It’s feeding a lot of people throughout the year with food that is higher quality than a lot of the California grown food available in supermarkets, whether organic or otherwise.
“It’s like riding a bucking bronco sometimes, but mostly I feel super fortunate to be doing this,” Monte says. “And the amazing thing is that I never realized how much the community would get behind it. If we need something, people come out of the woodwork; the flood-gates open up. And when members come up and suggest things, and they do, I think about doing them. And even do them.”
Given that Monte has largely realized his vision for a CSA in New Mexico, I asked what might be next.
“There is a next step,” he says, “but I can’t quite put my finger on it yet. Possibly more education, more farm tours. Or, an organic edible landscape company!”
And that would be taking Monte back to his roots once more
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