AZTEC — Speaking to a group of participants in the annual Northwest New Mexico Local Food Summit on July 21, Andrew Foster took a look around the Growing Forward Farm just south of the San Juan County government complex and offered a simple explanation for what the project was designed to do.
“This farm is what Extension does,” Foster said, referring to the San Juan County Cooperative Extension Office of New Mexico State University, which aims to translate cutting-edge agricultural research into education and action at the county level throughout the state.
Foster, the farm’s coordinator, and Bonnie Hopkins Byers, the San Juan County director for the extension program, led approximately 15 summit participants through the 7-acre outdoor education facility during the early afternoon on Friday. The visitors had spent the morning visiting two other farms — the River Edge pumpkin patch and the Hamblin Dairy, both in La Plata — as part of the three-day summit’s offerings, which also included an opening-day conference at the Inspired Moments Event Center in downtown Farmington and visits to downtown Farmington Makers Market and the Farmington Growers Market at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.
Foster and Hopkins both stressed what a valuable addition the Growing Forward Farm has become to the extension office’s work since it was started in 2021.
“This farm is unique among extension offices,” Foster said, describing it as “an experiential farm.”
That means, it is designed to serve as an agricultural laboratory — a place where county residents interested in farming can go to learn the best practices and techniques, helping them avoid costly and time-consuming mistakes when and when they start their own farms. The facility features a barn, a fruit tree orchard, an incubator farm, a composting area, cropland, a pergola, and spaces where community and youth programs are offered.
“When this idea first started, there was so much buy-in,” Byers said, noting that attitude was reflected not just by San Juan County officials — who lease the farm to the extension office at the rate of $1 a year — but from residents and business owners, many of whom have contributed to the project with in-kind donations or volunteer labor.
“It’s been such a massive community project,” she said.
Foster said the farm targets its youth outreach programming for fourth-graders, since so much of what goes on at the farm fits that grade-level’s science curriculum.
Byers noted that when the Growing Forward Farm welcomes students for field trips, the excursions are not just for fun, because most schools simply aren’t able to carve a day out of their crowded instruction schedule to permit that. The visits to the Growing Forward Farm have genuine instructional value, he said.
“We’ve set things up here so it reinforces what they’re learning in the classroom,” she said. “ … They’re actually learning, and reinforcing their education. And they’re learning healthy eating habits.”
Well, maybe it’s not all about healthy eating habits. During a stop at the composting station, Foster joked that he liked trying to persuade the farm’s younger visitors to taste the soil that was generated from composting.
So far, he hasn’t had any takers, he said, smiling sheepishly.
The summit participants also heard from Carson Stark, who has worked a patch of the incubator farm for the past few years as he learned the business of agriculture from the extension staff.
“It’s a great program — it really is,” he told the group, explaining that he had no experience with farming before he came to the Growing Forward Farm. “ … Having this opportunity here has been a big blessing.”
Foster said the Growing Forward Farm had developed even more quickly than he thought it would.
“This is our third season in operation, and it’s beyond my wildest dreams at this point,” he said, describing his anticipation at what the project might look like in another couple of years.
One of the additions he’s especially excited about is the addition of a new AmeriCorps/Vista staff member paid for by a government grant. Foster said that individuals will be charged with developing the farm’s beekeeping program, which includes an apiary just outside the 8-foot deer fence that surrounds the farm.
And it will only be three or four years before some of the farm’s 50 or so trees begin to produce apples all season long, Hopkins said, allowing extension office staff members to start offering them for sale at the mobile farm stand that has been constructed on the property.
She said the next big push for the Growing Forward Farm would be workforce development. Hopkins said the two most common complaints the folks in her office hear from San Juan County farmers are the presence of invasive plant species and a lack of experienced farmhands. The workforce development program can help address both, she said.
“We want to target it for veterans or homeless people, and give them some agricultural skills,” she said, explaining that having an knowledgeable, experienced labor force available would help local farmers not just harvest their crops, but keep out the weeds that can hamper their production.
Foster said a certification program is being considered under which interested potential farmhands can receive a certificate by attending and taking part in a certain number of workshops designed to teach them the skills they need.
Hopkins said attracting new people to the agricultural field is one of the primary goals of the extension service, and that’s why she was so pleased to see so many new faces among the 60 or 70 folks who signed up for this year’s summit.
“We want people who are excited, who bring a new energy,” he said. “We want new people who are interested in food systems.”
To learn more about the Growing Forward Farm, visit sanjuanextension.nmsu.edu.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or [email protected]. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.
This article originally appeared on Farmington Daily Times: Growing Forward Farm in Aztec is an outdoor agricultural laboratory