In New Mexico, we import 99% of what we eat. Many of us take that food for granted. Yet, the average supermarket holds only two to four days’ worth of groceries. That reality sunk in one year ago, early in the pandemic, when shoppers found shelves bare of more critical items than just toilet paper.
Our survival didn’t always depend on far-off food. Up until the 1950s, the people of northern Taos County grew almost everything they needed. For a time, our region grew enough wheat to export.
Bread is the “staff of life” and the global wheat trade is greater than all other crops combined. Wheat plants thrive in our harsh high desert environment, producing a premium high-protein grain. Wheat is easy to cultivate and store. Eaten as a whole grain flour, it can reverse ailments such as diabetes and heart disease.
With a newly revived Questa business—Metate Mill—local small farmers can grow wheat again without losing in the international commodities market. Metate Mill is a farmer-owned grist mill cooperative. This flour co-op cuts “Big Ag” out of the supply chain and allows farmers to sell directly to their neighbors. Local growers get more profit, and local eaters get a better value along with a higher quality product.
Metate Mill is a continuation of the Sangre de Cristo Agricultural Producers Cooperative. For 29 years, SCAPC has produced organic wheat in northern Taos County, initially in partnership with New Mexico State University and marketed under the Nativo label. According to longtime SCAPC President Gonzalo Gallegos, “We got into growing naturally to produce the highest possible quality, and that shows in our customer loyalty.”
The cooperative is centered upon a 30″ stone grist mill, grinding flour at a lower temperature than modern mills, in order to preserve nutrients and taste. Thanks to grants from the LOR Foundation and the Taos Community Foundation, the mill and cleaning house are now operational and completing the first production runs.
Metate will focus on the value-added process and, like SCAPC, offer assistance to farmers interested in getting into growing small grains. Beyond flour, meal and grits, the cooperative has the potential to offer bulk seed cleaning and storage. Future developments may also include sprouting and malting, brewing or baking, and retailing.
Cloud Cliff Bakery in Santa Fe and Wild Leaven Bakery in Taos were early supporters of the co-op. Cloud Cliff’s owner and master baker, Willem Malten, is working with the mill to perfect the baking qualities of the flour. “Perhaps more than ever we will have to shift and examine local food production,” says Malten, a leader in local food.
While getting a fair price for the flour is critical, Metate co-owner and miller Daniel Hutchison says the mill is about more than maximizing profits, “We want farmers to be rewarded for keeping our lands and water working, while filling local bellies with good food.” In a time of increasing food insecurity, the mill will supply nutrient-dense flour to the North Central Food Pantry and to the Taos Farm-to-School Program for made-from-scratch public school lunches.
Our area’s farmers are among the most elderly in the nation. Flour is the foundation of most cuisines. By growing staple grains that will be widely consumed, Metate Mill hopes to feed demand for local food production. Hutchison insists, “To grow a resilient food system, we need farmers. Reliable local markets will offer young people an increasingly attractive career.”
Metate Cooperative co-owner Domingo Gallegos welcomes farmers to get involved, “From a one-time custom milling of your harvest to enjoying all the benefits of membership—we can probably help you out.” Gallegos points out it’s not too late to get some spring wheat in the ground.