LOS RANCHOS, N.M. – The Village of Los Ranchos was incorporated in 1958, inspired by a desire to preserve a rural lifestyle, with open fields, unencumbered views and active cultivation of the land.

Sixty-two years later, residents of Los Ranchos, located in Albuquerque’s North Valley, are expanding that vision by establishing their community as a center for urban agriculture.

Mayor Donald T. Lopez, an engineering graduate of New Mexico State University, turned to his alma mater for help forming collaborative action plans to move Los Ranchos urban agriculture to the next level of sustainable performance.

“I approached Chancellor Dan Arvizu to see what resources NMSU had to help us,” Lopez said. “A year later, we are well on our way with the Aligning Our AgriFuture project.”

Funded by a Thornburg Foundation grant, NMSU’s Engineering New Mexico Resource Network worked with Los Ranchos leadership and NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences to build the project.

Using Strategic Doing, an agile collaboration process, the project team held six meetings during 2019 and early 2020 to bring together dozens of participants to network and brainstorm ways to transform the village’s Larry P. Abraham Agri-Nature Center into the destination hub for onsite community connections and agricultural education, as well as ways to strengthen agricultural production across perceived boundaries.

Those involved in the sessions consist of Los Ranchos and Albuquerque metro-area community members, small-scale growers and producers, state and local government, K-12 school and enrichment programs, subject matter experts, non-profits, agriculture-related businesses and others.

“The core of the project is to build connections and leverage networks among people in agriculture so they might combine their efforts for mutual benefit,” said project facilitator Lauren Goldstein, an organizational development specialist at NMSU. “Rather than creating new projects, through collaboration, they are aligning their projects to create new opportunities.”Fergus Whitney, agricultural program manager for the village, said the key to the process is “building confidence and trust among people who represent parts of the ecosystem. As that trust evolves, many great ideas surface.”

Six working groups were developed in alignment with Los Ranchos’ master plan. Those areas are education and youth, next generation, farming resiliency, agri-tourism, crops and orchards, and community connections.

 “Each group was asked to imagine, if they aligned their assets and strengthened their networks, what could they do to reach their group’s goal,” Goldstein said. “Some amazing collaborations evolved from each of the groups.”

A wide variety of projects began to form.

The education and youth group organized a conference for public school teachers to support education about horticulture and where food comes from through school gardens. More than 150 teachers had registered for the two-day program before the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to change direction.

“Not having the conference was disappointing, but it evolved into Virtual Binder, a distance learning project,” said Kateri Sava, Albuquerque Public Schools’ coordinator of school garden programs. “Using the platform Alive Binder, we were able to upload all of the resource material online. As teachers transitioned to virtual learning for their students, it provided an accessible gardening archive.”

Working with Whitney at the Agri-Nature Center, John Garlisch, NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service horticulture agent in Bernalillo County, has established a series of workshops to educate gardeners and small-acreage farmers.

A series on growing wine grapes is also being offered by Gill Giese, NMSU Extension viticulture specialist.

Another project is a soil improvement program led by Isabelle Jenniches and Christina Allday-Bondy of the New Mexico Soil Initiative.

The village’s Agri-Nature Center and the Rio Grande Community Farm, located near the agri-nature center, are now networking on several projects.

“Because of the trust that we have developed through Strategic Doing, we are creating the framework for equipment sharing,” Whitney said. “This form of agreement could be used elsewhere to share equipment.”

Los Ranchos has a well-established growers’ market and lavender festival. The agri-tourism group brainstormed on other possible events that could draw people to the village.

“We quickly agreed that the Los Ranchos area’s unique agricultural and cultural traditions are little known outside of Albuquerque,” Whitney said. “Our research prompted us to consider a variety of opportunities that include collaborating with Corrales to start joint events to educate visitors on traditional and sustainable farming practices, also to create branding and marketing material to appeal to a variety of visitors.”

The crop and orchards group serves as an interconnection between producers. A seed-sharing program has grown from those connections.

An energy efficiency and pollution prevention evaluation for Steel Bender Brewyard evolved from meeting networking.

Chris Campbell and Jalal Rastegary, project managers with the Engineering New Mexico Resource Network, housed in NMSU College of Engineering, conducted the no-cost, two-day evaluation, which was funded by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant.

In March, Aligning Our AgriFuture moved online and capitalized on its strengthened collaborative networks to accommodate COVID-19 related shifts.

A seventh working group, “ag-triage,” formed in March by dedicated project participants, quickly evaluated – and continues to organize – response to emerging community agricultural needs in the wake of COVID-19.

The ripple effects of the project continue to grow.

“One exciting outcome of this year has been the involvement of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and the Village of Corrales as collaborators,” said Goldstein. “Each of these organizations see a value in exploring the process and potentially scaling the Aligning Our AgriFuture model to their organizations.”

To get involved or to learn more about Aligning Our AgriFuture, contact Fergus Whitney at 505-344-6582.

Written by:Jane MoormanNew Mexico State University 

Jane Moorman writes for New Mexico State University Marketing and Communications and can be reached at 505-249-0527, or by email at jmoorman@nmsu.edu.

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