San Xavier Co-op Farm
It has taken several years and serious consideration of alternative strategies, but San Xavier Co-op Farm is well into final stages of a project to construct a grain milling facility that will increase milling output from about 5 tons per year to about 1 million pounds.
“We anticipate being operational by spring of 2018,” said Cie’na Schlaefli, Interim Farm Manager. Equipment is being purchased, with some installed, and other work is ongoing. The USDA Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program has been a partner from feasibility analysis with a $52,000 grant in 2014 to a $249,000 grant in 2015 for implementation over three years. Each project funding was equally matched with investment from the cooperative.
The cooperative members are tribal landowners on the Tohono O’odham Nation in the San Xavier District. San Xavier Co-op Farm is comprised of 860 acres with 40 acres currently in naturally grown grains and beans. “Arizona grows some of the best wheat in the world – the aroma is amazing. Some even is shipped to customers in Italy,” said Schaefli. The farm is known for traditional roasted wheat flour and specialty grains, such as Pima Club wheat (which makes a roasted wheat flour), heirloom grain and a white Sonoran wheat. Most popular is a Durham plus Pima blend.
The cooperative farm was formed in 1971 in order to leverage production and marketing of products. According to Schlaefli and the cooperative’s website, a history of fractionalized land ownership, legal challenges, water use and other factors collided to make the cooperative a logical option. For centuries beforehand, tribal families farmed the land using intricate canal systems for irrigation. Development of businesses to the north and in Tucson itself ended water supply needed to support the San Xavier farmers. Also having impact was the introduction of an allotment policy for tribal lands by the federal government in the 1800s. This caused about 69,000 acres to be divided into 40- to 160-acre parcels among more than 350 landowners. Production of food was decided by individual families – until the cooperative entered the picture. By 1975, the federal government sued several agribusinesses, copper mines and the city of Tucson to stop the drain on the aquifer below the San Xavier District. More legislation followed.
The San Xavier milling operation is one more step in what Schlaefli described as a new era for the community. (See the San Xavier Co-op Farm website, www.sanxaviercoop.org.)
“We looked at creating our own milling operation, contracting milling with other facilities and a balance of the two approaches,” said Schlaefli. Balance won out. Feasibility analysis demonstrated markets existed for the products and a need for the facility. It would serve multiple producers including the San Xavier Co-op Farm.
Until now, the closest milling facility was 150 miles away – creating quite a cost for the farmers. San Xavier had done a little grinding of grains to market its products in Tucson and in nearby tribal outlets. But the old equipment required that grains be put through the grinder process five to seven times, which was time and labor intensive. The farm also sells partially milled grain and seed for feed.
Farmers, said Schaefli, can’t get the prices they need by just selling whole grains. Products need to be milled to increase sales.” Some whole grain is sold to breweries and small bakeries. With the new roller mill, additional products can include pastry flours and all purpose flour. Marketing reach is farther, more regional, and can include larger customers like institutions in Tucson, hospitals, schools, etc. “We are 15 minutes from downtown Tucson,” she noted.
As the facility itself is finished, more attention will be devoted to marketing avenues as well as changing up the products from the farm. “We produce food, too,” she added. San Xavier Farm has a kitchen, makes end-products (breads and tortillas) and does some catering.
“We are branding our co-op.”
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in 2017. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agriculture producer groups and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)