We’ve all read the dire statistics about the aging trend in agriculture. In New Mexico the average age has now reached 60 years. The good news is there is a 50% increase in farmers under the age of 34. Casey Holland is one of those new young farmers committed to learning how to make a living farming in New Mexico while also taking care of the land she farms.
Casey grew up in Deming and not with an agricultural background. As she explored what she wanted to do with her life in college, she studied sociology and was learning more about climate change. She knew she wanted to do something that made a difference and helped solve societal and environmental problems. As part of her program works she had to do a community partnership. She got connected with some community gardens in this program and realized that this type of community farming could indeed contribute to solving these big problems. As she began to work on other farms, she found that farming was some of the most important work that needed to be done and there weren’t a lot of people skilled at it.
To that end, Casey began apprenticing at various farms around the South Valley since 2010. She has spent the most amount of time at Red Tractor Farm, a two-acre vegetable farm in Albuquerque’s South Valley. Red Tractor had a 40-family CSA and also sold into the Downtown Growers Market as well as being part of the Agri-cultura Network. She apprenticed for five years until the farm went through some transitions and Casey decided it was time to be the lead farmer and the opportunity arose at Chispas Farms.
Chispas Farms is located in the heart of Albuquerque and on the edge of the South Valley along the Bosque. The four-acre farm has been in production since 2001. Certified organic in 2006, Eli Burg and Amanda Mione were the co-head farmers at Chispas from 2004 to 2016. Casey started farming on her own there in 2017 and hired Ian Colburn in 2018. They specialize in growing over 120 varieties of heirloom fruits and vegetables and use regenerative practices such as crop rotation, cover cropping, integrated pest management, and seed saving.
At Chispas, Casey and Ian work an average of 36 hours during the seven-month growing season and they get one weekend off each month from the market. They then work half-time through the rest of the year but get paid the same amount in those months so they don’t have to get another job in the off-season.
Casey acknowledges that she has been blessed to find this opportunity to work at Chispas Farms. The owner has offered a five-year lease for the farm at no cost (and of course she has access to a lot of free, nutrient-dense food). He has also provided a no-interest loan for Casey so she could purchase necessary start up equipment and infrastructure. This type of subsidy has been critical to get new farmers and ranchers into an agricultural industry that has heavy startup costs-an impediment for younger producers that must be addressed. With her no-interest loan Casey invested in infrastructure such as cold storage, wash station, tool storage, and a BCS with three implements. She was able to make enough profit the first year to begin paying back that loan.
In turn, Casey has added a lot of value to Chispas Farms as she had her hands full when she moved to the farm in May 2017. The place had experienced a certain amount of neglect, and she spent a lot of time growing sorghum cover crops to improve soil fertility as well as tearing down dilapidated animal pens to make space for the outdoor community dining room. In addition, she set up a chicken coop, compost bin, outdoor classroom and a produce washing station. “I learned a lot about soil fertility at Red Tractor,” says Casey. “I wanted to experiment more at Chispas with the crop rotations and the cover crops to rehabilitate the soil. We also add amendments like compost and bone meal and blood meal and gypsum. We are really only farming one acre at Chispas and I make sure we have a winter cover crop on it so it isn’t just fallow.”
“At Chispas I now have the opportunity to take the whole farm to the next level with the whole four acres. We’re looking at things like wildlife habitat even for this urban farm. The sorghum is grown not just for soil fertility but also for the seed to feed birds. I’m going to be putting in more perennial crops like figs, grapes, fruit trees and shrubs, flowers, herbs, and a perennial/forest. I also want to plant clover and alfalfa into some areas as we bring on livestock. Right now the community area is about an 1/8th of an acre, but we may expand that. We really want to bring on animals (chickens and milk cow) to provide more value-added production and for pest control, fertilizer, and cover crop grazing.
Has all that focus on soil fertility paid off? During the peak season, production on the vegetable production area was 1000 pounds/acre/week which is a lot more than Casey had seen in the previous season. This production enabled her to pay herself and her co-farmer, Ian, the wage she had calculated in her financial plan as well as have some profit left over to begin paying off her loan.
Her vision for Chispas in the coming years will be a closed-loop system where she won’t have to buy any inputs. This year she spent $2,400 on compost. Once she gets the soil biology functioning with her cover crops, her need for compost and amendments will lessen which will increase overall profit for the farm. She also wants to move to no-till or conservation tillage as another goal for the farm. To that end she will be experimenting on how she can use animals to till and prepare the soil. She will continue to use flail mowing to incorporate cover crops and then do either a light till or rake to tuck in seed. Right now she is only tilling where there are beds and using mowing to manage the walkways.
Engaging the community as part of her farming is a critical piece of the puzzle for Casey. Whether that means growing heirloom varieties to help support a diverse seed population of non-hybridized plants, participating in a CSA program, engaging with the Agri-Cultura network that provides food to low-income families, or offering community dinners to bring people together around local food, Casey knows community and farming must go together and there is mutual benefit for all. “When we do community meals we’ve gotten a lot of different people involved including high schools and their cooking classes who participate and share food,” says Casey. “Our community provides values in so many unanticipated ways. For example, one of our CSA members gave us a free cow and we just have to pay any vet bills. We can use that cow to provide some animal impact on our cover crop and non-crop areas.
“To me this community involvement is a critical part of my quality of life. Regenerative agriculture is about building resilient communities and people are connected in really important ways to this effort. I also have found that by focusing on social concerns I take a deeper look at what I need for that quality of life. For example, I now make it a policy to take a weekend off each month even if that means paying someone to take my place at the market. That’s what I need to sustain this work given the size of farm I am running. “
Casey acknowledges that there are many challenges to farming. “You aren’t always going to know what will work, so you have to be being willing to try something as an experiment. I can see how those small experiments over the years have changed into standard operating procedure today, like flail mowing rather than pulling plants out by the roots which we used to do and which resulted in soil carbon loss. We also looked at our tomatoes at the end of the season and decided that instead of taking them to the dump, which is what everyone says you have to do, we were going to use our flail mower to incorporate them. We also decided to experiment with planting our cover crop seed by broadcasting the seed, but we’ve found we still need to do a light till to disc it in.”
2018 was Casey’s eighth season as a farmer. While that timeframe is still considered a “beginning farmer” (10 years or less is the USDA definition of beginner farmer), Casey has outlasted and performed most aspiring farmers. Because there are few formal mentoring programs for young and beginning farmers, the path for an aspiring farmer is daunting.
Casey had to create that path by seeking out individual mentors and in doing so she developed a skill set that now allows her to mentor farmers as a part-time job and she has also shared her knowledge with other young farmers through her work with the National Young Farmers Coalition. However, as part of her commitment to regenerative agriculture in New Mexico, Casey is now involved as a mentor and instructor for the Albuquerque Grow the Growers Program that is located at the Gutierrez-Hubbell House.
The Grow the Growers Program is a comprehensive farm training and business acceleration initiative designed to attract new and emerging farmers into professional food production. New Mexico State University Extension and the Bernalillo County Open Space have collaborated on this project with Holistic Management International providing Whole Farm Planning training to the participants. This program provides the formal structure that many trade schools provide for other trades and has been developed to increase the success rate of new farmers not only coming into agriculture but staying in agriculture. Casey’s passion for her mentoring work with the Grow the Growers Program is an extension of her passion for building a community of farmers who in turn can feed their communities, make a living with this work, while taking care of the land for generations to come.
Thanks to the Thornburg Foundation for their support of the development of this case study.