Advocacy & Activism, Education

Planting the Seeds: Matthew Aragon Preserves Local Agriculture

From News-Bulletin.com, Deborah Fox, 29 Oct 2011.

Matthew Aragon feels he is in a race against urban sprawl to protect agriculture for future farmers and retain food security for the county.

Matthew Aragon feels he is in a race against urban sprawl to protect agriculture for future farmers and retain food security for the county.

Valencia farmer Matthew Aragon, the News-Bulletin’s Citizen of the Year, is literally a driving force in local agriculture.

In addition to his own farm and ranch business, he spends hours in the tractor seat to help run the Los Lunas High School student farm located on the Los Lunas Campus at the former Los Lunas Hospital and Training Center.

It’s a team effort of students, educators, agriculture officials and local farmers and businesses, Aragon said.

He and Los Lunas dairy farmer Janet Jarratt haul their own farm equipment to the campus to do the farming and upkeep. They had to secure personal insurance coverage to indemnify the school district’s liability before they could even begin.

The farm was so run down, and over-run with brush and trees that Aragon had to come out with his brush hog just to clear the fields and irrigation ditches before any crop could be planted.

“It’s really important to him because he’s really worried about agriculture with all the development that has come into the valley,” said his sister, Elizabeth Aragon. “He’s worried that it’s just going to disappear. He wants to educate the youth, so if they want to continue with their family farms, or start their own farming business, they’ll have the choice to do it.”

Matthew Aragon wants to interest young people in small farms and ranching careers because the average age of farmers today is 72-years old, he said. He wished there had been a school farm when he was in school.

“It personifies who he is,” said Kyle Tator, the Valencia County extension agent from New Mexico State University. “It speaks a lot about his character, and his willingness to help, and how important he feels agriculture is to this community.

“That’s the bottom line. He’s out there, not getting paid, and like he said, there’s a lot of other folks that aren’t getting paid either, but he never complains.”

“Everybody puts in their fair share of work — and then some,” said Matthew Aragon.

What motivates him are the values instilled in him through his agricultural heritage. He is a fifth-generation farmer and rancher on a farm passed down from his great-grandfather, Juan Aragon. His family came to Valencia in 1739 from the Province of Aragon in Spain.

The 33-year-old farmer feels he is in a race against urban sprawl to protect agriculture for future farmers and retain food security for the county and the country.

His passion for the agricultural way of life and food security compels him to do whatever he can to promote it.

“He’s got the attitude of, ‘We can do this,'” said Jarratt. “I think that’s one of his best attributes. It’s that attitude of not thinking about how it’s a problem, but how to make it happen.

“It was really good to have him to talk to about the dream for that place — the community dream — and to promote agricultural economics in the high school,” she said. “These are times when we’ve got an opportunity to really do something with that renewable resource. Making a living off the land while promoting good stewardship without having to invest a lot of money is timely.”

Aragon was instrumental in bringing together a variety of local education and agriculture officials to get the school farm going.

Jarratt brought in her contacts with the National Resource Conservation Service and Sen. Michael Sanchez (D-Valencia).

Chris Martinez, president of the Los Lunas Schools Board of Education, had one of the original visions for the farm and brought it to the school board.

“They had tried something prior to us, with one of their students, Zach Montano,” Aragon said. “He’s a really good friend of mine. He is definitely a hard worker. He tried something there, but it didn’t work for him because he just didn’t have the resources.

“… When we came, we brought all the different agencies and people to the table, and that’s how we’re able to get it off the ground,” Aragon said. “It took a team effort; it wasn’t anything any one person could take on.”

This year, the crops being planted are used to reconstitute the soil so a viable crop can be planted. They’ve planted oats to add organic matter, and now summer peas, which are a natural nitrogen builder, Aragon said.

The values that motivate Aragon were learned through his family and community. Doing whatever needs to be done or helping someone in a bind comes natural to him.

Aragon will stop what he’s doing and go help a neighbor if asked, but they’d do the same for him, he said.

The Valencia native brings his equipment and “real world farming experience” to the student farm.

“He has his own farming business, which he’s had for years,” Elizabeth said. “But he’s added the farming for the high school. He’s been working really hard at that and telling me every day, or once a week, how things are going out there.

“He just seems so adamant about making this work for the kids.”

“The thing that I’ve appreciated very much about Matthew is that, if we’re in a pinch, he generally will find a way to make the time to come help out,” Jarratt said “That ‘can do’ attitude is really important.”

Over the summer, while Los Lunas High School was between agriculture teachers, Jarratt and Aragon worked with students on the school farm. They gave an impromptu lesson on farm equipment purchasing when they were discussing types of swathers.

A swather, or windrower, is a farm implement that cuts hay or small grain crops and forms them into a windrow.

“Matthew turned and asked the kids, ‘Do you have any idea of what we’re talking about,'” Jarratt said. “He did a really good job of explaining to the kids what the equipment did, how you make a good decision, how your equipment impacts the quality of your product. It makes the experience come alive for the students, lets them see the real world applications of it.”

Zach Eichwald, a junior at Valencia High School and the manager of his school’s farm behind Daniel Fernandez Elementary, met Aragon a few years ago.

“He farms some property near my house and he would always help me,” Eichwald said. “I asked him what kind of fertilizer, what should I do for this or that … he helps me a lot.”

Eichwald is involved in both school farms.

“He’s got a real good head on his shoulders,” Aragon said of Eichwald. “These kids are hard-working kids, and they’re sharp.”

Aragon learned a lot about farming and ranching from his grandfather, Alfonso Aragon, who was raised on a farm. But Aragon’s parents, Juan and Candelaria Aragon, had 9-to-5 jobs, he said. His mother was raised on a farm in Santa Rosa.

“Grandpa ended up working for the railroad in Barstow, then the war started and that’s where everybody ended up,” Aragon said.

Originally, the family’s farm in Valencia was on 50 acres, but over time, bits and pieces were sold. Aragon lives on the remaining eight and leases 150 acres, mostly from cousins who live in California.

“It’s really interesting, a lot of people think that where they see the river now is where it always ran,” Aragon said. “The river was actually put there in 1912. We had, on an old sheep’s hide, the original land grant drawn on it, and it showed where the river used to run. It did a big split right here. It came down, part of it sort of ran where it is now, the other half ran around the edge of the foothills, then kind of hit Tomé Hill and ran around that way.”

Two dogs, Hunter and Smokey Bear, are the first to greet arrivals at Aragon’s home. The yard is framed with plows and balers, swathers and a tall shed piled high with stacks of hay bales.

An irrigated pasture on the south side, one of several rotational grazing pastures, is currently home to his two horses, Rosie and Penko, a mustang-looking horse from Mexico.

Across the road in another irrigated pasture are his 23 head of cattle. The bull is a muscular Hereford Aragon bought to mix with his Limousin cows. The cattle eat eight bales of hay a day, he said.

He mostly grows alfalfa, but also sorghums and triticale, a lush green winter forage Aragon can harvest hay from.

“It provides bales of hay early in the summer when things are in short supply,” Aragon said. “In this business, everything has to produce at maximum output. One little mistake can cost you a lot of money. You’ve definitely got to be on top of your game.”

Aragon raises his own cattle feed and sells beef and hay.

“The extension office puts out a map through the university and it tells you all the cow-calf ratios per acre for different parts of the state,” said Aragon. “So, right away, if you’re going to purchase some land, they have already done all the footwork. … It’s an average depending on rainfall a year, but you’ll get a feel for what it will do.”

Aragon is also a member of the Valencia County Farm and Livestock Bureau, which has a mission to promote and protect agriculture in the county.

“He’s one of our most active board members,” Jarratt said. “He’s helping us move forward and do things for the community at large to promote agriculture in a sustainable way with good stewardship, and he sets a good example.”

“He works his butt off, and he’s self built to where he is now with all his farming,” Eichwald said. “He’s found a way to make money on the farm and make himself better. He’s almost an idol to me because I’m involved in agriculture. …He’s helped a lot with what seminars to go to, advice on what to do and how he got where he got. I use him as a role model because someday, I’d like to do the same thing.”

Aragon’s idea of success is making an honest living, and being respected by the people around him. He lives by what he believes in and is an example of sustainable farming.

“It’s good to see someone who has his stuff together at such a young age, and wants to be a farmer,” said Tator. “There’s definitely no doubt in his mind what he wants to do and he’s definitely a hard worker.”

Source: News-Bulletin.com, “Planting the seeds: Matthew Aragon preserves local agriculture” by Deborah Fox, 29 Oct 2011.

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