Taos youth shelter grows steady funding with sustainable agriculture

From the Taos News
By Cody Hooks
chooks@taosnews.com

While most farmers in Northern New Mexico have put their gardens to bed for the season, one local nonprofit is looking to harvest its first bundles of lettuce, kale and basil just after the start of the new year.

DreamTree Project announced earlier this month that the organization is branching into agriculture to cultivate a new source of much-needed revenue for the high costs of running a temporary shelter and transitional housing program for young people.

"It's simple," said DreamTree Project Executive Director Catherine Hummel. "We will grow, package and distribute produce to local markets and in return create jobs and revenue for DreamTree Project."

But how are nonprofit-do-gooders-turned-first-time-farmers going to raise a crop that's ready in the dead of winter?

The answer is a retrofitted shipping container that comes fully stocked and installed with all the technology and equipment necessary to do vertical hydroponic farming in temperatures as hot as 120 degrees and cold as 20 degrees below zero, said Hummel.

DreamTree Project is purchasing the 40-foot-by-9-foot shipping container from Freight Farms, a company based in Austin, Texas.

Once fully operational, the relatively small growing space inside the shipping container can produce 1 acre's worth of leafy greens, lettuce and similar crops with little more than 10 gallons of water a day, Hummel said. Many of the hydroponic monitoring and distribution systems are automated and can be controlled through a mobile app.

While the shipping container farms were designed for in-fill spaces in densely packed cities that have a chronic shortage of fresh food, Hummel said the vertical farm offers the opportunity to "link in with the Taos agricultural tradition," but with an "innovative, high-tech approach."

Hummel said the crops grown in the new vertical farm, which will be located near the nonprofit's main space in Taos, will be sold to restaurants that have confirmed their need for a consistent supply of greens in the winter months. A weekly farm stand supplied by the DreamTree Project farm is also in the works.

Hummel estimates the new farm will bring in at least $25,000 a year - a significant chunk of money in a cash-strapped community full of nonprofits that inevitably compete for resources.

As a social enterprise, the farm isn't about netting a profit for investors, but meant to put money directly toward housing and counseling services for young people without a home.

Lisa O'Brien, director of the Taos Community Foundation, told The Taos News that DreamTree's project is bold.

While "grant funding, gala events and individual gifts have been the anchors of traditional fundraising strategies," O'Brien said, "there are great demands on nonprofit organizations to meet the ever-growing needs in community, and creating diversity in funding streams is critical to their long-term health."

Ironically enough, DreamTree Project has made a down payment on the pop-up farm, but seeks grants and donations to buy it outright instead of taking on loan payments. The vertical gardens typically have a three-year return on investment, according to the Freight Farms website.

But finding the right type of social enterprise can be tricky. Online business are a viable option for making money, but are often disconnected from the community, Hummel said. One nonprofit in Albuquerque started growing wheatgrass for the many smoothie stores in the metro area to pick up extra cash while another organization coordinates vehicle donations to fund its mission.

DreamTree Project screened at least 50 potential ideas and went through market research for about six. "This one really fit our criteria: It's a small business we have the capacity to run, meets a need and can be sustainable in our community."

DreamTree Project's youth shelter can house up to eight residents who are between 12 and 17 years old for up to 90 days, while the transitional living program can help more than a dozen young people ages 16 to 24 for up to two years.

"Once it's fully up and running, generating money for our programs, there'll be other opportunities - making prepared foods like salads and pesto we can sell through local markets," she said.

DreamTree Project is hiring a part-time farm manager and part-time sales manager to jump-start the operations. Hummel said that once the farm is running smoothly, it could offer opportunities for youth employment - in harvesting, sales and deliveries.