Meet the farmers trying to grow healthier food in the Southwest

Meet the farmers trying to grow healthier food in the Southwest

LA UNION, N.M. — Shahid Mustafa is talking about the importance of soil on a chilly November morning on Taylor Hood Farms, as he and Lindsey McKee lead a workshop on regenerative agriculture, a way of farming that focuses on soil health and biodiversity.

Three participants from Las Cruces sit on the raised carrot beds as Chico the bearded, brown billy goat grazes nearby. They’re eager to learn how to grow their own food. But before these students get their hands on a shovel, they learn about how nutrition starts underground.

“Soil is a living entity,” Mustafa said. “It’s not just something you walk on or kick off your shoes. There are more microorganisms in a teaspoon of soil than people on the planet. When you bring life back into soil, consequently that’s what happens with your food. If you ingest that, it becomes part of your own biology.”

That’s the crux of what Mustafa and McKee teach: Healthier soil leads to healthier food, which can lead to healthier people. They’re among a small group of farmers in the Paso del Norte region who are growing food with this mindset.

Research seems to support the link between healthy soil and healthy food. A study published in 2022 shows farms that practiced soil regeneration grew crops with higher levels of vitamins and minerals than farms using conventional farming methods.

The end of World War II ushered a boom in agricultural output, bolstered by improved machinery, genetically-modified seeds and the widespread use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. But mounting evidence shows many of our fruits, vegetables and grains are less nutritious than they were 40 to 70 years ago: In other words, the apple you’re eating today has fewer nutrients than an apple in 1950.

Mustafa would like to see more research address the connection between farming practices and public health, but doesn’t think it’s a topic that the industrial food system prioritizes.

“In terms of measuring nutrient density, it’s generally not a focus on production because they (industrial farms) grow for volume and they grow for appearance, so it looks a certain way and hopefully the farmer was able to get enough yield to be profitable,” Mustafa said. “But beyond that there’s not a lot of data to support its nutrient value.”

Regenerative farms feed families across the borderland

Mustafa shares a 2.5-acre plot with an artist residency in La Union in southern New Mexico just west of El Paso. Taylor Hood Farms and other small-scale food growers in this area serve customers from El Paso to Las Cruces.

Less than five miles north, Andre Gutierrez of O.G. Farms spent his summer trialing different, drought-resistant melon varieties in a pruned pecan orchard, saving the seeds for next season. In Berino, N.M., just eight miles away from O.G. Farms, Yvonne Diaz of De Colores Farms tends to a field of Mexican June, a white corn historically grown in the Southwest, without using synthetic pesticides. The fruits and vegetables grown on O.G. Farms and De Colores go to distributors like Desert Spoon Food Hub in El Paso that offer weekly grocery boxes for delivery or pickup online.

Andre Gutierrez carries freshly harvested chard at Granja La Capilla in Mesilla, New Mexico on Nov. 5. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Most of the farmers from these operations have some kind of connection to La Semilla Food Center, such as Gutierrez, who worked on La Semilla’s farm before starting his own. Established in 2010, the nonprofit center’s programs include farm training, youth camps and produce deliveries.

“We support farmers while they get established and even after establishment,” said La Semilla farm manager Josh Jasso. “Whether that’s stipends to come co-teach and share their knowledge with other beginning farmers or supplies if we can afford them or space.”

On a recent November morning, Jasso checks on a row of rainbow chard, pulling back the tarp that protects the crops from wind and freeze. He points out an assassin bug, which is known for being beneficial to plants because they prey on insects that eat foliage.

La Semilla grows food using organic and regenerative practices, but Jasso said labels are a tricky issue: They help people make decisions when purchasing food, but many people don’t know what those labels entail. The organic certification requires farms to not use prohibited substances – such as synthetic fertilizers – but doesn’t go far enough, he believes.

“Organic practices, even at a large scale, are ripping up the earth and extractive,” he said. “They’re just paying for the label and using the required materials, so it’s not like a mindset. … Regenerative ag is sort of a buzz word right now. The word we use is agro-ecological. It’s about your relationship with soil more than any standards or certificates.”

Josh Jasso sits among beds of chard at La Semilla Farm in Anthony, New Mexico on Nov. 11. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

At La Semilla, the farmers try to minimize tilling because tilling breaks up soil structure and disturbs mycelium, the network of fungal strands that help plants absorb nutrients and water. This disruption also causes soil to erode faster.

A couple weeks prior, they planted cover crops of barley, oats, yellow field peas, clover and bitter vetch. Legumes like peas, clover and vetch have a relationship with soil-dwelling bacteria that fix nitrogen out of the atmosphere and into the soil. Since the crops grown for harvest suck out nitrogen from the soil, it’s essential to replenish the soil for the next crop, Jasso said.

Researchers recently conducted what they call a first-of-its-kind study to test these practices. Published in the journal PeerJ this year, the study analyzed 10 farms across the country that had practiced no-till, cover cropping and crop rotations for at least five to 10 years. The farmers grew peas, sorghum, corn or soybeans on one acre using the regenerative practices, and the same crop on a neighboring plot using conventional farming methods.

The crops grown with regenerative practices had higher levels of vitamins K, E, B1 and B2, the results show. These vitamins are essential for the human diet because they’re involved with building bones, protecting cells from damage and converting food into energy. The regenerative crops also had more calcium, a mineral that supports the development of healthy bones and strengthens teeth.

Desiree Miller, a 22-year-old intern at La Semilla, grew up in El Paso where she didn’t pay much attention to the environment or where her food came from. Fresh fruits and vegetables weren’t a significant part of her diet, she remembers. She came to the farm because she cares about transforming the food system.

While completing her undergraduate degree in environmental biology at the University of Texas at El Paso, she researched the gut microbiome and examined soil nutrients. She didn’t connect the two separate assignments – soil health and human health – until after she graduated and started farming at La Semilla.

Ultimately, she hopes to combine her science background with her knowledge of regenerative farming to make food both healthier and more accessible. 

“Getting people to actually see where their food comes from I think would be a big step in addressing nutrition because I think we’re just very disconnected,” Miller said. “Buying stuff from a store just feels like buying a product on a shelf, like any other thing you buy. When you come here and see where your food comes from, you’re like, ‘Oh, I understand what it’s like to be part of an ecosystem.’”

How industrial agriculture affects public health

On a recent tour of O.G. farms, Andre Gutierrez pulls a bunch of radishes from the ground, adding them to the bouquet of leafy fall harvest he’s carrying. There was a freeze overnight, but the hardy root vegetable survived. Under the light of day, the sun now warms the rows of beets, onions, carrots and turnips.

The former landscaper from El Paso started helping his dad care for livestock in Anthony, New Mexico, about 12 years ago, mostly cows and sheep – “expensive pets” he refers to them in jest. He eventually took an interest in growing food.

It’s a good sign when he finds earthworms in the beds, he said. The animals break down organic matter into forms of nutrients that plants can use.

Gutierrez scoops a handful of soil out of a wheelbarrow. It contains fungal compost from Full Circle Mushrooms, a farm that grows specialty mushrooms just north of O.G. Farms.

“In essence, I’m farming the soil and I let the soil do the work,” Gutierrez says.

Gutierrez grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, and tries to avoid planting the same type of crop in the same bed in back-to-back seasons, a practice called crop rotation.

This stands in contrast to monoculture, the practice of growing a single type of crop on the same plot of land repeatedly. This practice depletes the soil of nutrients and organic matter, which are vital for plant growth. Farmers then lean on synthetic fertilizers to provide their plants the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that’s been depleted. But long-term application of synthetic fertilizers can decrease bacterial biodiversity in soil.

Some scientists warn that decades of soil degradation has created a public health problem.

In 2004, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin published a study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition that analyzed USDA nutrient data published in 1950 and 1999. They found changes in dozens of different crops including strawberries, watermelon, broccoli, asparagus and cucumbers.

Overall, there were declines in protein, calcium, iron and vitamin C, along with other essential vitamins and minerals, though the level of decline varied. Protein is a fuel source and building block for body tissue. Iron is needed for transporting oxygen throughout the body while vitamin C is critical to the growth and repair of body tissue.

When asked what it would take for farmers to transition to more regenerative practices, Mustafa says the agriculture industry doesn’t easily allow farmers to take that financial risk.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the farmer’s fault, especially because they’re so entrenched in their infrastructure,” Mustafa said. “Changing it for us on two acres is a lot easier than someone growing a thousand acres of anything. The amount of input to add or change in terms of how they practice, they’d have to take out a loan and there’s no subsidy supporting that.”

Andre Gutierrez harvests radishes from rows planted between pecan trees at Granja La Capilla in Mesilla, New Mexico on Nov. 5. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Mustafa, as well as other farmers and food activists, point to various ways to improve public health through agriculture.

Jasso suggests collaborative relationships between regenerative farms and universities, so farmers and scientists can work directly together to produce more research. The problem, he said, is that many regenerative growers tend to bounce around different plots of land in their lifetime. Soil health and microbial communities are dynamic, so these types of studies would need to be long term, he said.

The Bionutrient Food Association is one organization trying to collect more data. In 2020, the nonprofit published a report that identified mostly positive correlations between soil health and nutrient density. There were significant variations, however, and no single farming practice is a “silver bullet,” said Dan Kittredge, executive director of the Bionutrient Food Association.

The data collected is also used to fine-tune a handheld bionutrient meter, which would allow a grocery shopper to measure the nutrients in their produce before buying. This could incentivize the agriculture industry to grow food for nutrients, Kittredge said.

Shahid Mustafa, left, explains the “double dig” technique to workshop participants at Taylor Hood Farms in La Union, New Mexico on Nov. 5. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Mustafa agrees that it’s going to take a combination of factors to change the food system: increasing demand for more nutrient-dense food and educating people. Some people have suggested change through policymaking, such as the investment of federal dollars into regenerative farming practices.

“Policy would be helpful but there’s so much economy tied into this existing infrastructure,” Mustafa says.

He believes it will take the next generation of farmers coming up to help move the needle.

Standing among the carrot beds, Terrill Currington, one of the participants at Mustafa’s workshop, describes eating as a temporary satisfaction for people. They don’t think about how it interacts with their body in the long run, he says.

“It’s not as important to them until they have a health crisis,” Mustafa adds. “That’s when I see, ‘Oh, something happened!’ And now you’re paying a lot more attention.”