Green in the Desert: Local Farmer Captures Carbon to Grow Food, Feed Community

Shahid Mustafa is the first to admit his farm might not look as orderly as those you see while driving down the highway.

At Taylor Hood Farms, you won’t find manicured rows or flood-irrigated fields. Nor will you notice bed after bed of a single crop like alfalfa, commodity cotton or chile peppers.

To hear Mustafa say it, there’s a little bit of chaos in nature. Some of that chaos reflects in the appearance of his farm, where red amaranth grows tall and sweet carrots fill beds near lemon cucumbers and artichokes. But embracing nature’s way, according to Mustafa, could offer key solutions to some of the region’s most urgent environmental and health difficulties—even if some chaos is part of the package.

“The regenerative way is to work with nature, instead of against it,” he said. “Our philosophy is that the best food comes from the best soil, so most of our focus and attention is on enriching or enhancing the soil that we have.”

In the Paso del Norte region, Mustafa is pioneering an innovative approach to farming called regenerative agriculture. The practice could help restore topsoils degraded by conventional farming techniques, to say nothing of its implications for ensuring residents have consistent access to healthy foods.

The regenerative way

A tractor sits before a container with a mural on it at Taylor Hood Farms.

Mustafa runs two farms in the area—one in La Mesa, near Old Mesilla, and the other in Socorro. His mission is twofold: to make fresh produce available to all families in the region and to demonstrate the power and promise of regenerative farming.

In most respects, Mustafa said, the two are mutually inclusive: it’s hard to care for the community if one deprives the land on which it relies.

Regenerative agriculture refers to farming and grazing techniques that rebuild organic materials in soil, a ground-up approach that pays dividends in terms of clean, nutrient-dense produce, water-retention rate, native-species habitat, ecosystem health, soil fertility, biodiversity and even climate change.

The practice walks hand-in-hand with carbon farming, which harnesses the power of photosynthesizing plants to actually capture carbon dioxide and sink it into the nutrient-rich soil.

Stored safely in the earth, Mustafa said, the carbon becomes a proactive part of the crops’ life-cycle, rather than trapping heat in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas—the primary driver of global warming.

When Mustafa goes about farming, his mind is on setting the stage for nature to take its course, then gently aiding the production along the way.

“We do that through composting, crop rotation and reduced tillage,” he said. “That means we’re not cultivating every year; every year, we’re not creating new beds. In fact, we like to keep the same beds and keep building on those beds, because that lets the soil generate natural beneficials.”

Those beneficials, as he describes them, are microbiotic life forms that feed on the decomposition of organic material, passing nutrients into the growing food. In this way, even the nutrients in the food itself are reliant on soils.

“In terms of the value of the food,” Mustafa said, “that, to me, is the most logical answer. If the food is not feeding from a source [the soil] that’s rich in nutrients, then where else is it going to get the nutrients?”

Childhood food insecurity

Local farms such as Mustafa’s play a pivotal role in providing nutritious foods to the community, and their importance—given the demographical statistics—can hardly be overstated.

In El Paso County, nearly one in four children is listed as food-insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to nutritious foods.

Shahid Mustafa, Taylor Hood Farms founder, cleans produce at his farm near Old Mesilla.

Surrounding counties—many of which are mostly rural—rank even worse in child-food-insecurity ratings.

For example, Hudspeth County’s child-food-insecurity rate is about 32 percent. Luna County’s is 33.6 percent.  Poverty and unemployment frequently precipitate food insecurity in the U.S., according to Feeding America, a hunger-relief organization.

Additionally, food insecurity is associated with chronic health problems like diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression. But local farms can help assuage these problems simply by providing healthy, inexpensive produce, said Leah Whigham, executive director of the Institute for Healthy Living, an organization dedicated to fostering healthier communities in the Paso del Norte region.

While some nutrients remain in certain foods for long after they’re picked, other crucial nutrients found in fruits and vegetables tend to reduce as they move through the long industrial-shipping process.

“Really what you want to emphasize is, as often as you can, buy the local produce,” Whigham said, “because some of the kinds of nutrients that you can only get from the fresh fruits and vegetables do dissipate if they’re shipped on a truck.”

Additionally, buying local can help take the guesswork out of whether the food is healthy, organic and ethically sourced.

Most of Mustafa’s food, for example, is available in El Paso True Foods boxes, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) venture. The True Foods program aggregates food from numerous different farmers in the region and packs it into boxes.

Each week, customers who sign up for the program can pick up their boxes at various locations throughout the city.

Farmer Shahid Mustafa delivers El Paso True Foods boxes to city offices in downtown El Paso. The boxes contain food grown from various farmers in the region.

True Foods Co-founder Adriana Clowe said the program supports both local farmers and community health. On the one hand, local farmers get a consistent market from residents who buy the weekly boxes. On the other, customers get healthy food right from the region—food that hasn’t degraded during the course of long-haul shipping.

“As consumers, we vote with our dollars,” Clowe said. “Wherever we decide to put our money—that’s what we’re supporting. With True Foods, we hope that the social interaction with farms and farmers…can open people up to that larger world of making mindful choices.” Giving the people the tools Mustafa has hopes for his efforts as well.

By farming here in the Chihuahuan Desert, he thinks he can help address issues of food insecurity and land deprivation, not only by offering nutritional produce straight from the farm, but by re-connecting people to the inherent value in the land and the food it produces.

“One of the answers to food deserts and food inequality is really to show people how to do it themselves, to become self-reliant,” he said. “If I had my way, I’d set this [farm] up as a perfect demonstration site and always be out showing somebody else how to replicate what we do.”

“Empowerment comes from the community,” he added. “Once they know how and are given the tools, they can do it themselves.”


Editor’s Note: Green in the Desert is a new column exploring sustainability and conservation efforts in the El Paso/Juarez area.  Previous Columns can be read HERE.

Writer Chilton Tippin is project manager and communications coordinator for Wondor Eco:Nomics. He likes to write, bike, ski, climb and explore. In 2015, he walked across America.