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Success Stories

USDA Grants Help Farmer Care for Apple Orchards, Maintain Blue Corn Lineages

Nicole King
Small Business
Value Added
Man and child standing under corn hung to dry

After traveling down a long, narrow dirt road in Dixon, New Mexico, I eventually came to the production area for La Mesa Farms. There, more than 5,000 beautiful ears of blue corn were hung up to dry for the winter. They would soon be taken down, and the corn removed from the cob and processed for the coming season’s products.

Standing under those ears of corn, Mesa Ruiz, farmer and owner of the farm, shared a little about his family’s journey from selling clothing to selling apple cider, and finally adding blue corn products to their cider sales.

“It’s a lot of work, but both my wife, Molly, and I just love it so much,” shared Ruiz. “All I want to do is have enough money for my family to live well in terms of living on the land, having good food, and things like that.”

Ruiz, a native New Mexican, has been farming most of his life and has been growing blue corn for over 20 years. About 12 years ago, he and his wife sold their clothing store in Taos and dove headfirst into commercial farming. They have been selling fresh cider and growing blue corn ever since.

“I knew that I wasn’t content just doing that,” Ruiz said about running their clothing shop. “So, we sold our store and pushed ourselves into farming commercially, which was scary — not being sure if we could make it financially. And yet, we were really well received at the market and here in the Dixon community.”

Initially, the family primarily sold fresh apple cider, made from local apples, at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. They have been selling products there for 14 years. The apples Ruiz uses for cider come from old orchards in the local area that he is helping to recover. Most are between 80 and 120 years old. Despite their age, with help from Ruiz, they produce enough apples for what he needs.

“I have over 20 acres that I manage and am basically leasing,” said Ruiz. “I’m putting into these properties, so I’m not paying for the leases. The orchards and the fields that I have are just fantastic. The owners are so happy to have someone there who is just caring for these trees.”

Ruiz got his first Value-Added Producer Grant from USDA Rural Development in 2016 to help with the cider production and some of his blue corn products.

“I was really able to establish myself due to that first grant and then started dreaming up new products,” Ruiz said. “So, we started the nixtamal processing and really exploring the move to pupusas and masa.”

In 2022 Ruiz received a second USDA Rural Development Value-Added Producer Grant. This one focused on the blue corn products he had started developing after receiving the first grant.

“The second grant really encouraged me in terms of farming with the blue corn,” Ruiz said. “Before this grant, I was feeling like blue corn was something that was secondary to my cider production. Fresh cider is amazing, and it sells well at market, but now with the pupusas and new products, the blue corn has actually taken the main part of my business, which is amazing.”

Like the apples, the ears of blue corn Ruiz uses for his products also have a long history in the community. The corn came from a local family that had the seeds for over 60 years. Before that it was grown by a local Pueblo.

“Finding a local seed that I was sure dated back far enough before any GMO contamination was a big deal,” said Ruiz. “It is totally native corn — New Mexico native corn.”

His work with blue corn has given him a reputation, and some lineages of corn that are at risk of disappearing have found their way into his care.

“There are other landrace native blue corns in the valley and around that have slowly kind of gravitated to me,” said Ruiz. “I have these old-time Hispanic families who are giving me this corn, so now I have a backlog of four or five different types of corn.”

Blue corn needs to be planted every seven years, or it loses its vitality. Ruiz needs to plant the seeds and collect new seeds to maintain the strains these families have given him.

“I’m hoping that I’ll be able to give this corn back to these families,” he said. “These have been in their families for generations, and now the old-timers are passing, and the kids aren’t interested. What do they do, and what’s going to happen to these old lineages of seeds? I don’t know, but I can only do my best.”

Ruiz’s family expanded from farmers markets in Santa Fe and began selling at markets in Taos last year with the help of the second Value-Added Producer Grant. All of his packaged blue corn products — blue corn atole, blue corn posole, blue corn chocolate elixir, and blue corn masa — can be purchased there, along with fresh apple cider and freshly cooked pupusas.

“If we hadn’t gotten this last value-added grant, I feel like we wouldn’t have expanded into Taos,” he said. “Being able to hire extra employees, both for processing and at market — that made a big difference for us. I feel like we would have just maintained rather than continuing to grow as a farm.”

Farmers markets provide an opportunity for Ruiz to connect with his customers and to share his organic farming principles, such as how he works with nature to find a balance to keep his farm pesticide- and chemical-free.

“The people coming to farmers markets are not coming because they just want food,” said Ruiz. “They are there because they want food that they know was grown locally. They want to meet the farmer, and they want to know our values. So, that’s really the big part of what I do at market. I connect with people and really share with them what our farm is about.”

Ruiz also values sustainable energy. Thanks to help from a third grant from Rural Development, he is able to power all his commercial processing with sustainable energy from solar panels that sit on a hill above his production area.

You can find the La Mesa Farms booth at the Saturday Santa Fe Farmers’ Market or Taos Farmers Market each year from May to December.

To learn more about USDA Rural Development loans and grants, visit the programs page.

Obligation Amount:
Year(s) of Obligation:
Congressional District:
  • New Mexico: District 3