Supply Chain and Super Food Leads to Delicious Eggs and Happy Farmers
by Ric Murphy photos by Stephanie Cameron
You might say compassion, dedication, and hard work have put Mesa Top Farm over the top. For co-owners Steve and Colleen Warshawer, it’s so much more than that. Originally formed in 1994 as Beneficial Farms, Mesa Top has grown into an environmentally sound and diverse farming operation, all while achieving financial stability.
“The farm and our CSA [community supported agriculture] started in response to community members who wanted fresh, delicious produce, and, hopefully, some eggs, too. My husband founded this farm more than twenty years ago, with the mission of growing pesticide-free produce, raising free-range cattle, and [producing] eggs from cage-free chickens,” said Colleen.
Mesa Top, located twenty-five miles southeast of Santa Fe on several hundred acres of juniper and pine forest, is now a dynamic operation, ranging from produce and eggs to cheese making and dog breeding. The remote farm, which offers sweeping views in a quiet and peaceful setting, appeals to almost anyone who steps foot on the land. That is why the Warshawers recently created a master plan that maximizes open space and offers some carefully situated home sites, even horse stalls and riding trails. With help for maintenance costs such as roads and water systems, Steve and Colleen hope to share this special place with a few willing neighbors.
“When it comes to agricultural products, the farm is a diverse operation and we focus on a number of aspects of farming,” says Steve. At the core of Mesa Top’s success is egg production, which can only come through carefully handling the challenges of reliable distribution, consumer education, keeping healthy chickens, and more. Mesa Top is one of the main farms in the very popular Beneficial Farms CSA, which is a collection of various farmers, ranchers, and food producers. All the eggs that Beneficial Farms CSA members receive come from Mesa Top. And because of that success, Steve and Colleen’s son, Thomas Swendson, has recently taken ownership of this part of the family business.
“The CSA supplies our eggs directly to members in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Cedar Crest, and Madrid,” Swendson noted. “The membership also allows us to sell pullet eggs, which are smaller eggs laid by young chickens, ensuring we have a market for them, too.” And a relationship with the Co-op Distribution Center allows Beneficial Farms eggs to be sold at various restaurants and cafés around New Mexico, including Fire and Hops, Hotel Santa Fe, Sage Bakehouse, and Taos Market.
When Mesa Top started raising chickens for egg production, selling the eggs wasn’t always easy. They had very few avenues to move their product. Distribution of goods is key for any successful farmer, as Steve and Colleen learned the hard way. By the time their initial flock of chickens finally started laying eggs, the CSA and growing season were just about finished. Fortunately, they had a relationship with The Marketplace Natural Food Market, which preceded the La Montañita Co-op in Santa Fe. They were able to start selling eggs and produce, such as cucumbers and squash, through The Marketplace. The present La Montañita grew from The Marketplace, and Mesa Top has been active with them ever since. That connection to the Co-op is now stronger than ever, with Steve being the Enterprise Development Manager for the last ten years, working with farmers and ranchers to increase production and improve market opportunities for foods produced in the Southwest.
“Steven has helped La Montañita develop a co-op agreement with USDA Rural Development, which has funded additional staff for his department, including grant writing and administration,” Colleen noted. “Because of this strong partnership, we recently applied for and received a USDA grant for value-added products.”
While Mesa Top has secured several channels of distribution over the years, one constant hurdle they and many farmers face when producing a superior quality food is customer education. From the foundation of the farm, the Warshawers wanted to make ecologically and ethically sound decisions regarding day-to-day management of their business, such as choosing what to feed daily to hundreds of chickens. The choice of feed matters to the health of the chickens, and their eggs. CSA Manager Thomas Swendson explained that while the average customer understands and appreciates the humane practices of cage-free chickens, not everyone understands the significance of high-quality feed, which may be reflected in a higher cost to the consumer.
“Labels like ‘omega 3’ sound good to consumers,” Swendson said, but they don’t always understand that this is related to what the chickens eat. He emphasized that “the quality of the egg produced is directly linked to the diet of the chickens. The healthier the diet, the more delicious the eggs are.”
Mesa Top feeds more than one thousand chickens during the course of a year and has worked to rely on locally produced grains and locally milled supplemental feed for much of the birds’ meals. Almost three quarters of their diet is comprised of a whole red winter wheat, and the Warshawers also hope to provide their own grain some time down the road. “The whole wheat suits them well, and allows us to be assured that we do not have to rely on GMO feed. The rest of their diet is a custom blend of high-energy and high-protein feed, ground fresh for us every few weeks by Embudo Valley Organics,” Swendson explained.
Under a grant from the USDA, Mesa Top will be reinvigorating marketing and packaging of their egg cartons to help with better brand recognition. Some of the goals of this re-branding effort will be to explain the correlation between high-quality feed and the cost of a dozen eggs, while also expanding their retail presence to additional locations. And while transitioning from conventional eggs to eggs that come from chickens raised outdoors, on high quality feed may be challenging for some families, the Warshawers are confident customers will understand and appreciate the price they are being asked to pay.
“We have been slow to advertise the benefits of our eggs, but with our new cartons and marketing materials, we feel customers will really appreciate them. Honestly, it is amazing to check the egg displays and see what people are willing to pay for them once they fully understand the value. We spend what it takes to keep our chickens healthy and happy, which produces eggs that are fully flavored and how eggs should truly taste,” said Colleen.
As systems put in place lead to on-site successes, their achievements go beyond the farm and into the community. Working with their son’s high school, Early College Opportunities, they helped build a chicken coop using spare parts from Mesa Top. One dozen baby chicks were donated to the class, along with a bag of high-quality feed. Steve and Colleen instructed the class on safe handling of the chickens and appropriate washing and packing of their eggs. When the flock and production increase, the eggs will be sold through the Beneficial Farms CSA. “This small on-campus agricultural micro-enterprise is a great way to introduce young people to farming. We hope that some future entrepreneurs are sparked by this experience,” Steve explained.
Steve and Colleen share what is most satisfying at the end of the day, given the ups and downs of running such a diverse business over the past two decades: “Having produced foods that sustain life for families across the state, our animals being very happy and well cared for, and the knowledge that all our efforts are supported by others that like what we do.”
It’s easy to understand why Mesa Top Farm is successful. Beyond the hard work and determination, there’s a dynamic family effort to raise delicious, high-quality, real food. That passion translates to other parts of the farm. While touring the beautiful countryside, we were immediately greeted by Blanca, their Ayrshire cow. Thomas pointed out she had been in the “cow hospital” with a broken leg (and was healing quite well so far). Sweet and unassuming, she was the perfect introduction to Mesa Top. We knew we were someplace special, a place where the livestock are treated more like a part of the family, vegetables are grown with love, and careful consideration is given to the delicate ecosystem of a well-rounded farm and business. That spirit can only shine through when the intentions are truly genuine.