In the Field with Farmer Anthony Wagner
In the Field is a series we’ll be running throughout the 2017 farming season, interviewing a diverse group of farmers around the country about what growing food looks like from their perspective, what’s happening on their farm and what they’d like consumers to remember when they’re at the grocery store or farmers’ market.
Anthony Wagner’s family has been farming since 1910. He’s the fourth generation of Wagner Farms, currently farming over 300 acres of produce in Corrales, New Mexico, just north of Albuquerque, and Socorro, 90 miles south. Last summer, the fifth generation came back to the farm as well: after graduate school, Anthony’s daughter Ashley and her cousin Chantelle started an initiative called Farmer’s Daughters, to promote local growers, connect growers with restaurants and stores, and host events like farm-to-table popup dinners. The cousins have a line of “farm to bath” products, and have been active in efforts to preserve a tract of farmland the Wagners have been farming for forty years that was recently listed for sale.
Anthony himself has been farming since he was 18. He recently retired from a 30-year career at a national laboratory, and is enjoying simply being a farmer after three decades of working four days a week at the lab followed by Friday through Sunday on the farm and at markets. We caught up with him last week as he was getting ready to drive a load of alfalfa hay from Socorro to Corrales.
What do you grow?
Green chili is our main crop. We plant five different kinds, mostly from our own saved seed. We’ve got an extra hot, hot, medium and mild, and we plant all the favorites, including Sandia, that’s hot; Big Jim, medium; and La Lumbre, which is extra hot. We think it’s the best chili. You try it, you get addicted — at least that’s the case here in the middle Rio Grande Valley. I don’t think you could get chile like this anywhere else in the country.
We also grow corn, cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, tomatoes, apples, peaches, black-eyed peas, green beans, pumpkins, alfalfa … it’s a little bit of everything.
We’re moving towards using organic practices; it’s just taking some time. One of my brothers has a piece of land that’s already certified, and we’re trying to go that way with our farms, but it’s a three- to five-year process to get there.
What kind of community are you farming in?
Corrales is a small community in the Rio Grande valley near Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. It’s country, it’s farmland, with the city around us. A lot of people have moved here recently, but there are still some farms left. In Socorro, we’re sort of in town; it’s a farming community. Around here is a mix of white, Spanish and Native American. My family is German, and Spanish on my mom’s side.
Where do you sell your products?
I also put on an apple festival for the community the second weekend of October. We have hay rides to our apple orchard, a pumpkin patch, food, music … It’s the third year; we grew from 2,000 to 4,000 to last year when I had 12,000 people come.
What are you doing on the farm this week?
This week I’m hauling alfalfa from Socorro to Corrales. I’m also cleaning up the apple orchard. We pruned it a while back — we took a lot of the excess branches off, now we’ve got to chip them, irrigate, mow the pasture between the trees … My brother has been planting chili and corn; we’re planting a lot of our crops now too.
What ‘s hard about farming?
It’s a lot of physical work and there’s a lot of risk. Weather is a risk — with our apples, we could lose our crop, it could freeze. It was cold last night, so we had to keep an eye on it — even though it’s this late in the season, we’ve lost apples before. They’ll just fall off if they freeze. We do different things to protect them, so we’ve had apples every year, but some years we’ve lost part of the crop. Ten days ago, we got a lot of rain, and there was hail on the ground — it didn’t impact our apples, but in the past, we’ve lost whole chili fields to hail.
There is risk in growing, you just never know. We plant in two areas, in different parts of the state, so if we lose one, at least we have the other; that helps to mitigate the risk.
What do you love about farming?
I just love growing fresh vegetables; I get satisfaction especially selling to schools because I know our kids are getting fresh local food that’s not being trucked in from a thousand miles away. I pick melons one day and the next day they’re in the cafeterias and feeding our kids.
And being outdoors … being outside in the fresh air is really good for you. I’ve been indoors for 30 years, now I’m out doing things in the open air. I just like it.
What do you wish consumers knew about what it takes to grow the food they eat?
I want kids to learn more about it. A lot of our kids think they get their produce from Walmart or the grocery store. That’s part of what my daughter is trying to do with Farmer’s Daughters. On the farm, we give tours, so people can come out and see what we’re growing. We try to hire young people, so they can learn, and I’ve done trainings.
I’m on the board of a group called Farm to Table that got me into the schools. They do a lot of education and training. We go to the legislature to get money for the schools so they can buy local produce; I work a lot on that.