FEEDING NEW MEXICO, PART 2: MEET MAX

Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures.
— Ray Bradbury

With a trail of dust behind us, we dismounted the van and were welcomed by the whipping winds that seem a constant companion in the desert. Framed by the backdrop of distant mountains, we were greeted by Max Wade, a third-generation New Mexico rancher who looks the part. A former linebacker for the New Mexico State Aggies football team, he once played opposite NFL hall-of-famer Brian Urlacher. An imposing figure, the desert sand seemed to crunch a little louder under the weight of his boots.

Despite appearances, Max is no ordinary rancher, and this is no ordinary place. Galloping Grace Youth Ranch is almost incomprehensibly multi-faceted. It's an organization that mirrors its founder: Thoughtful, nonconformist, innovative, and purposeful.

At its heart, Galloping Grace is a small ranch that helps educate urban children about raising livestock, growing food, and exploring the outdoors. It's what Max, his family, and the other employees are passionate about.

What makes this place so compelling is that nobody that is a part of it is satisfied with doing things the established way. The normal approach to ranching and farming has become wasteful, toxic, and harmful. It's disassociated itself from nature and the natural food cycle. Galloping Grace is working on better and more efficient solutions, and helping ingrain this approach into our future farmers and ranchers.

On a Wednesday morning in February, the kids were in school, but the ranch chores still needed done. We got to work laying a bed of straw and hay in an empty pen while pigs squealed excitedly nearby, knowing better than Tara and I that this task meant breakfast was coming soon. Max refers to this bed as a diaper. It collects precious water, which is so scarce in the high-desert, from the piles of produce that were making their way to the ranch. Thousands of pounds of fruit and vegetables that are spoiled, damaged, or otherwise can't be used by local grocery stores and the Roadrunner Food Bank (remember them?) arrive at the ranch, hauled in three mornings every week by the ranch-hand, Gabe. Before daylight, Gabe drives around the Albuquerque area collecting it from these businesses, ensuring it doesn't end up in a landfill, and providing food for the ranch's pigs, chickens, cows, and goats. A typical load is anywhere from 7,000 to 11,000 pounds.

After the "garbage" is dumped on the "diaper", the gates are opened, and the pigs come bounding in. A smorgasbord of greens, bananas, melons, berries, and the pigs favorite, avocados, is attacked. By the end of the next day, most of it will be gone. What's left is then piled up and moved to a composting area, where the chickens will peck through the remains and help extend the life of this supposed trash even more. Four weeks from now, after the pigs and chickens (and cows and goats) have done their work, wonderful compost will be available. Compost that can be used to amend the desert sand, create soil to grow vegetables, and to retain what little water the occasional rains provide.

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Expired bread has a home here too. As we unwrapped hundreds of bags of bread, again thrown out by local stores (some not even past its expiration date) we lamented that we couldn't have a bite of the jalapeno and cheese multigrain loaves that these spoiled animals would be enjoying. Or the cinnamon apple sticky loaf. Or the artisan sourdough. Or, well, you get the idea.

The animals on this ranch are fed almost exclusively on food waste. Over a million pounds of it each year. Trash that would otherwise be breaking down in a dump, emitting methane.

As if that's not enough, the ranch also gives back to the Roadrunner Food Bank. Much of the meat from the animals is donated back to Roadrunner, providing healthy and nutritious protein to the hungry, and closing the food gap by creating a beautiful food cycle between the two organizations. Not to be outdone, the chickens lay eggs that go to local food pantries too.

As the bright sun inched ever lower on the horizon, we closed out the day by helping Max move eight goats from a temporary enclosure back to their regular address. As Tara and I struggled with two goats apiece, Max deftly guided four of them with one hand, while explaining that many of the animals are assigned to the children that come here to learn, so they can be used  in 4-H and other educational programs. The older children are also taught how to teach and lead the younger children and kids (goat pun!).

Reducing waste, feeding the hungry, teaching our youth, improving the soil, growing quality food, finding new a better solutions to multiple problems. This is a way of thinking that's been lost on modern agriculture, but Galloping Grace is disrupting the old way of thinking in this quiet corner of the southwest.

For those of you that love to read books about food, know that Michael Pollan's next tome should be about this place. The New Mexico desert has its version of Joel Salatin, and his name is Max Wade.

The technology industry shouldn't have a monopoly on innovation. Agriculture has a part to play too. Max and his team are here to make sure that happens.