How do we restore and strengthen local food systems? Peter Warshall, Co-Director of Dreaming New Mexico, explores how to create ecological and social transformation at the local and regional level.
What is the vision for the Dreaming New Mexico: Food and Farming project?
Peter Warshall: Dreaming New Mexico is a process more than a vision. It is a process in which all players involved in producing and consuming food take time off from the grind and politics to ask: What is it I really want? What do I deeply desire? Why did I get into this? What does my dream and success look like? It is a kind of sanctuary from everyday headaches, maybe even a purification to re-discover one’s original desire.
What is an agro-ecoregion? Why is this such an important frame of reference?
Peter Warshall: When you sit down and say grace or gobble a burger, can you trace in your mind the ingredients that will soon became your flesh and blood? All dreams about healthy food and sustainable agriculture must actually start with some tract of earth. What soils and water grew the food? Who grew it? Dreaming New Mexico calls these landscapes “agro-ecoregions.”
Agro-ecoregions are crucial to the future of local foodsheds because they help each region define what it can produce each season and what it needs to import. They deconstruct arbitrary county and state boundaries and let us, once again, see how diverse landscapes support us in varied but crucial ways. Visit our website to see New Mexico’s six agro-ecoregions and our Methods section on how to define your own.
What strategies will build a more self-reliant local food system for New Mexico?
Peter Warshall: We provide strategies that are crop or meat specific and also specific to the dreams of individuals and organizations. A few examples are: build a transport web of agro-food hubs (for us, that is with LaMontanita Co-op taking the lead); find banks that will provide small farmers with loans; expand the LandLinks program which helps retiring farmers find buyers who will maintain the land in farming; expand the agricultural easement program, and find the capital to return slaughter and packing houses to New Mexico.
How will a comprehensive food and farming plan increase local prosperity and create good jobs?
Peter Warshall: The food sector of the economy is framed by three or four scales: very local, regional, state imports/exports and multi-national trade. We found that State self-sufficiency could probably not exceed 20% (it is now about 2%) because New Mexico is an arid state with some cold winters and some poor soils and water supply. We also found that an in-state farm dollar (the crop or meat was grown and consumed in state) stayed active three or four times longer than a farm dollar earned for an exported crop or livestock.
In New Mexico, internalizing all the steps in the value chain for summer vegetables, milk and milk products and beef would greatly accelerate foodshed prosperity. We helped further that goal by helping write a new law requiring State agencies and organizations (e.g., schools) to purchase more from local sources each year.
The job situation cannot be planned. In New Mexico, it has to do with green cards and the border, with economic development plans of over 15 sovereign Native American nations, with a global-local marketing system that is in erratic and rapid flux. The best way, at the moment, to preserve or increase jobs appears to be: save farms from development and strengthen agro-food hubs.
What does the food movement mean to you?
Peter Warshall: The US is now majority urban. Few citizens know where their water comes from or where it goes when they flush the toilet. Few can name the watershed they live in. Few can name five native-resident species. Few can point north or tell you the phase of the moon.
The food movement is the best way to bridge this nature-deficit disorder as it connects, in a very obvious way, the land and waters to one’s health and economy. Farmers markets, especially, turn food into stories and conversation, an aspect of human life that is hundreds of thousands of years old. It is an inexhaustible journey.
Thinking about chile in New Mexico, for instance, one winds up in Ethiopia, Mexico, China and Peru; in biotech and cultural arguments; in food colorant industries and the beauty of ristras; in local cafes, NAFTA and the USDA. A passion for food or a particular food may not make it any easier to improve local living or our society, but it is definitely a delicious way to taste certain old truths about the worth of soil and rain, harvesting, cultivating and cooking that cannot be found in any other way.
About Peter Warshall
Co-Director of Dreaming New Mexico, Peter Warshall is a world-renowned water stewart, biodiversity and wildlife specialist, research scientist, conservationist, and environmental activist. His multi-faceted areas of expertise include natural history, natural resource management, conservation, biology, environmental impact analysis, and conflict resolution and consensus building among divergent interest groups.
Peter’s rich life has included a stint as a Fulbright Scholar studying in Paris with Claude Levi-Strauss, working for the U.N., ISAID and other organizations in eleven African nations, working with the Tohono O’odham and Apache people of Arizona, and advising corporations and municipal governments. He also edited the legendary, highly influential publication Whole Earth from 1996 until it ceased publication, and is the co-project director of Bioneers Dreaming New Mexico initiative.
Photo of chile peppers courtesy of John P.More: Agriculture, Creating Community, Environmental Issues, Farm to Fork, Food and Community, Food Culture, Local Food, Sustainable Farming