Throughout the Paso del Norte region of southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas, La Semilla Food Center is cultivating long-term, sustainable, and restorative changes to the food system. Formed in 2010, the nonprofit organization focuses on hands-on, land-based projects and systems-changing policy advocacy.
La Semilla carries out its work through five programs rooted in the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem: Community Farm, Farm Fresh, Edible Education, Community Education, and Policy & Community Development. These programs aim to center the experience and expertise of communities most affected by harmful structures and practices within the food system.
“As members of this diverse community consisting of multiple social and natural ecosystems, we know that at the confluence of our relationship to land, our distinct, earth‐based heritage foodways, and our practice of intersectional feminism lies the locus of resilience for future generations,” Rubí Orozco Santos, Director of Organizational Storytelling and Development at La Semilla, tells Food Tank.
La Semilla is advocating for safe and dignified work environments for farm workers in the Paso del Norte region, many of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. “The way farm workers are treated remains one of the most shameful elements of our food system,” says Orozco Santos. “The industrial food system has always depended on cruelty and human rights violations.”
U.S. farm workers face increased vulnerability due to compounding political, economic, and environmental threats. Economic hardship, immigration status, spoken language, national origin, race, and socioeconomic status exemplify some of the factors that contribute to farm workers being the targets of systematic exploitation and exclusion.
Currently, New Mexico state laws exclude dairy workers, meat packers, hand-harvest workers, and child hand-harvest workers from earning minimum wage. The pressure to work as fast as possible to receive higher pay fosters dangerous conditions. In the United States, 49 percent of horticulture workers lack work authorization given their immigration status, creating barriers to safely advocating for their labor and wage rights.
La Semilla joined the New Mexico Coalition of Agricultural Workers and Advocates. The community farm, founded on agroecological principles, guarantees team members a US $15 per hour wage, paid time off, workers’ compensation, overtime pay, parental leave, health insurance, and essential health and safety infrastructure including bathrooms and shade.
The agroecological model in La Semilla’s mission aims to benefit workers. A fundamental principle of agroecology emphasizes how equity and social well-being for workers are necessary to create sustainable food and agricultural systems. But agroecology can also provide “a viable long-term strategy that allows for crop resilience,” Orozco Santos tells Food Tank. La Semilla hopes to form and support a regional network of small farmers exchanging best practices and adaptations in the face of climate change.
A recent study in Earth’s Future, led by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), predicts that the Southwestern U.S. will only become drier by the end of the 21st century. The region will experience altered precipitation patterns and an increase in extreme weather events, such as droughts and heat waves. According to Orozco Santos, La Semilla is focused on forming geographically-appropriate methods and innovations that address the evolving challenges of climate change. This includes supporting viable small-scale and integrated approaches to arid land farming, growing drought-resistant crops, and creating adaptive cultivation techniques.
In addition to these land-based projects, the organization is working to build food sovereignty through storytelling. Orozco Santos explains that “foodways and wordways go together.” To La Semilla, storytelling serves as a relational cultural strategy that allows the organization to increase their connection with the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem. According to Orozco Santos, this practice also “uplift[s] inherently healthy and regenerative earth-based traditions that have too often been undervalued, and support[s] power-shifting narratives to address past and present systemic harms.”
La Semilla’s storytelling team recently published the zine Food, Land, and Us: A Look at the Farm Bill from the Paso del Norte Region. The zine discusses the complexities of U.S. agricultural policy, including “its foundation on stolen land, labor, and expertise, and the stories of communities of color whose knowledge, resistance, and resilience have shaped our food system today,” Orozco Santos tells Food Tank.
In the future, the organization aims to develop fellowships for agroecology farming and foodways practitioners. By leveraging their programs La Semilla also hopes to advocate for policy and infrastructure for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) growers and increase support for a collective Paso del Norte agroecological farming practice. Orozco Santos tells Food Tank that La Semilla will continue “combating racism and anti-Blackness and supporting Indigenous land sovereignty in meaningful and tangible ways.”
Photo courtesy of Michelle Carreon, La Semilla Food Center