Farm Case Study: Vida Verde

Vida Verde

Seth Matlick
Albuquerque, NM


When did you start your farm?
First season was in 2009. Started planning and buying equipment seeds fall/winter 2008.

What do you produce?
Over 120 varieties of veggies (mainly), herbs and flowers.

How big is your farm?
5 acres (3 plus in production, 1-2 in cover).

Where is it?
The North Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

What is your soil type and topography?
Elevation at around 5,000 ft, heavy clay soils, high pH.

Do you lease, rent or own your land?
We rent 4 plots from 4 landlords.

What are your markets?
10 CSA shares going up to 20 next year, 1 market, 15 restaurant accounts and 3 local co-op locations.

What made you want to start your farm? What was your dream?

I really loved the lifestyle and work I found in farming after interning for a farm here in ABQ. The original dream was to be a market gardener, but after over producing certain crops for our first market it was apparent we needed to move some food through the local restaurants.

How were you involved in farming before you started your own farm?

I interned on a farm in NM, which was my first experience on a farm. That was my only involvement up to the start of Vida Verde.

How did you secure land and capital for your farm?

I was fortunate with land. I was caretaking a property in exchange for rent and there was a ½ acre plot available to cultivate and plant. Also there was an acre property that the farm where I was interning used. At the end of the season the farm was leaving the property and the land owner offered it to me. I started with very little capital. The man I started the farm with had some tools and the rest we sourced from craiglist and yard sales. Everything else was recycled, borrowed or bought as cheaply as possible. I had a second job during my internship and without having to pay rent I was able to put almost all my earnings towards starting the farm.

What problems did you run into in the planning stages?

I learned a fair amount about planting and harvesting but very little on irrigation, marketing, etc. There were some errors in cost estimations and predicting what we needed to start the farm. Also we planted more than we could sell of several crops which later meant scrambling to sell them.

What did your farm look like in year one?

The farm was an L shaped half-acre field on a 5 acre parcel where I lived and was caretaking the property. Half the field was drip irrigated from a well and the other half was flood irrigated from the river. There was a ramshackle chicken coop that housed 100 laying hens (45 barred rock, 45 Rhode Island reds and 10 Ameraucanas). The other field was a squarish acre 5 minutes down the road, all on drip irrigation from another well. We built a lean-to greenhouse out of scrap lumber and reclaimed sliding glass doors to start our plants. We planted a large variety of veggies using an earthway to sell at 3 local farmers markets. We hired out the tractor work.

What were some challenges that you didn’t expect to have and how did you deal with them?

Over-production was one problem, which is a great problem to have. We over planted because we misjudged our market. This led to contacting chefs at some top local restaurants and as a result we now focus primarily on selling to restaurants. Not knowing enough about irrigation and starting the farm on a limited budget led to cutting corners and buying smaller mainlines, fittings etc. As a result we had bad pressure and lost some crops from drying out. Also had to repurchase the right sized irrigation supplies which doubly set us back. Also our homemade greenhouse wasn’t nearly as well constructed as we had hoped and we lost plants to cold nights, hot days and pests. I was trained in a really beautiful old glass greenhouse and my propagation knowledge was useless because our greenhouse wasn’t fit for starting plants.

What were some indicators in the beginning stages that made you optimistic for your farm’s success?

The over-production and our ability to move the food. Surplus meant we were good at growing (some crops) and the chefs we contacted were excited to be getting beautiful, local, fresh, organic and affordable ingredients. I also really loved the work and knew there would be a learning curve. I wasn’t discouraged by a few failures in the beginning.

What have been some landmark events in your farm’s development? (equipment purchases, strategic decision, markets, etc.)

Buying my first and second tractor, switching from the earthway to a 3 hopper Jang seeder that could be pulled by the tractor, every season expanding a little into some more land, hiring my first interns, acquiring new restaurant accounts every year, growing new crops every year (this year’s were Napa cabbage, dandelion greens, celtuce, romaine, iceberg, and dried beans), introducing cut flowers into our plan, starting a CSA, etc. Every year there are some small benchmarks.

Was there a point when you felt your farm became “established?”

When other farmers at the market recognized and acknowledged me as a fellow grower. It’s still happening little by little. Having customers at the market become regulars and chefs seek out our produce specifically.

How have your goals changed?

My goal originally was to make a living from growing food. That hasn’t changed, though my financial goals are now higher then when I started out. A new goal I have is to grow as much food for my community with as little labor as possible.

How have you been successful? (financial, production, quality of life, etc.)

I think I have been successful in many ways since starting the farm. I have been able to expand both acreage and market presence without diminishing profits. I have been able to grow more food and maintain more land without more labor which means my systems and leadership are getting better. I have been able to buy a home, get married, and have a quality of life I both enjoy and am proud of. I also feel like my work is getting recognition from chefs, community members and other farmers, and that is the best success I can think of.

Who or what can you credit for your successes?

I am a hard worker and not thin skinned about failures. I have tried to learn from every mistake and turn it into a profitable lesson. Some of my success is without a doubt from the trendiness of farming right now. The timing of starting the farm was luck and the fad of small scale, organically produced, and young farmers has been crucial to building this business. I also think having worked in restaurants for many years and being passionate about cooking and eating food has allowed for me to connect to our customers.

What challenges does your farm face now and in the future?

My body is facing some serious challenges and there is only so much more hand weeding I can take. The desert weeds are not only tenacious but getting worse as neighboring farms and properties don’t maintain them the seed bank in the soil gets larger and worse. I would like to move into mechanical cultivation in order to keep growing as much food as possible without exhausting myself first. Water is always an issue and will continue to be. Labor is the third concern. I have an excellent employee who is being trained to manage the farm and who runs our CSA. His fiancée is getting her PhD, and when she graduates it is most likely they will move. I need to find someone to hire and train who is committed to living in ABQ for the long haul.

Where do you see your farm in five years?

Hopefully on a large consolidated piece of land. I would like all of my equipment, buildings and acres to be in once place, not spread out the way I am now. I would like to have some animals in the mix so some acres are in cover, some in veggies and some in pasture for the animals and then rotate.

What advice would you give to beginning farmers?

Invest in yourselves and your farm and think of the farm as a very long-term investment. Buy the tools that will make your job easier. This will not only make you more profit in the long run by giving you a superior product, but also by having less waste but also will hopefully save you physically over the long run. Plant perennials! Someone once said “young men plant radishes and old men plant trees.” Be the old farmers and look out onto a long future of growing. Lastly start a Roth IRA and begin to save for your retirement. I hope to one day have enough saved to retire comfortably, travel, and leave something for my kin. Start today because it is all about the exponential growth!

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Originally published on March 14, 2016

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