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Apr-07-2010 18:51printcomments

NIFI Comes to New Mexico

Examining a a contemporary movement to help immigrants become farmers in New Mexico.

Immigrant farm workers photo by Bonnie King

(LAS CRUCES, N.M.) - Cecilia Tamez has worn many hats and lived lots of struggles. The resident of Radium Springs, New Mexico, once had a store in Las Cruces that sold custom-made dresses for traditional quinceaneras and weddings.

She’s run an independent trucking business, and battled cancer. But there is something that harkens Tamez back to the land. For the friendly woman with gleaming eyes, the land is “life” and “Mother Earth.”

Tamez’s love of the land goes back to her father, she says. Born into a farming family in Canton, China, the elder Tamez made his way to Mexico in 1906, adopted the Spanish name Francisco Tamez, eventually opened a business in Parral, Chihuahua, and barely escaped death at the hands of Pancho Villa.

To this day, Cecilia Tamez maintains a small pecan and fruit operation in Parral, with the aid of a caretaker. A half-century ago, Tamez’s sister Juanita arrived in southern New Mexico’s Dona Ana County, after her Anglo husband, Thomas Bulger, landed a job at White Sands Missile Range. For several years, the Bulgers struggled with a chicken farm in the rural northern end of the county. Later, the couple started growing pecans with trees purchased from the famous Stahmann Farms down the road in the Mesilla Valley.

When she was younger, Tamez traveled to New Mexico to help her sister’s family pack eggs and harvest pecans. Although the farm days Tamez remembers were decades ago, the New Mexico resident is ready to get her hands back into the soil, with the help of the non-profit National Immigrant Farming Initiative (NIFI).

Tamez is among a growing number of New Mexicans who are attending NIFI meetings and getting excited about starting farming coops, opening small businesses and even launching bigger enterprises.

“When I heard about this program, I liked it,” Tamez affirms. “I think it is important to involve the people in the small communities like Milagro, Rodey and Placitas.” Growing organic food and making compost for fertilizer are of special interest to Tamez. “If we did this here, we would have great potential to sell to all the farms here,” Tamez contends. “We know that the price for organic food is a lot higher than for regular food.”

Founded seven years ago in collaboration with Heifer International and other national partners, NIFI assists immigrants going into US agriculture. The group has worked with African, Asian and Latin American immigrant communities in the United States.

“We’re trying to spread out to as many communities as we can across the country,” says Serafina Youngdahl Lombardi, a NIFI organizer in New Mexico. NIFI’s far-flung network, the rural advocate says, helps budding farmers start organizations, provides leads to grants and financing and gives technical assistance to new producers.

Among the people who have responded to NIFI’S call, Youngdahl Lombardi says, are agronomists from Mexico who have loads of “skills to share” but need better access to resources and information in the US.

“We know there is an under served population of immigrants who are farming or want to farm,” she adds. In 2010 scores of people have attended NIFI meetings in southern, central and northern New Mexico, and a move is afoot to establish a statewide organization.

Youngdahl Lombardi assesses the initial community response as very positive, especially in light of today’s “protective time”, when resources are scarce and the situation of immigrants difficult.

Don Bustos, a well-known, master organic grower from northern New Mexico, serves as the national chair of NIFI.

Veronica Carmona, lead community organizer for the Las Cruces-based Colonias Development Council(CDC, says NIFI is a logical follow-up to community gardens the CDC has sponsored in underdeveloped, low-income Dona Ana County communities known as colonias during the last two years. The project could be an opportunity for rural residents displaced by crop mechanization and suffering high levels of unemployment, Carmona says.

In its community outreach, the CDC has discovered that local youth are “very open” to agriculture as an alternative career path, Carmona adds. “That’s how we start,” she says. “This is the positive way to teach the youth, the new generations.”

But Carmona cautions that transitioning from a community garden to a cooperative or commercial enterprise presents a new set of challenges in the form of establishing and defining organizational relationships, meeting deadlines and navigating red tape.

“It’s like an adventure,” Carmona says. “Although many people have worked in a community garden as volunteers or as a learning and occupational experience, this is the initiation of a business perspective, with greater production between various people at a certain moment.”

In southern New Mexico, Tamez is confident opportunities exist for farming cooperatives, new farmers’ markets and even big greenhouses that could produce profitable tomato crops, for example. She urges people to “think big” about their futures on the land.

Inspired in part by NIFI, an agricultural pilot project is breaking ground in the Dona Ana County community of Chaparral this year.

Carmona and Tamez share agreement that new agricultural projects should be based on ecological principles of sustainability and respect for the land.

Says Tamez: “I think this program can recover and teach the people to love the land, because that is where we live. We need to take care of it, and recycle our water.”

Special thanks to Kent Paterson
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
Support for this special series was provided by the McCune Charitable Foundation of Santa Fe.

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