A Growing Difference
Paying workers a "living wage," Preferred Produce near Columbus
aims to be a different kind of grower.
by Marjorie Lilly
You can see the greenhouse in the distance from the highway just south of the Border Patrol checkpoint near Columbus. It looks like several greenhouses. There are 10 rounded roofs, which are the separate "bays" of one greenhouse, and another greenhouse under construction.
The gate is about five minutes from the highway over a dirt road through flat, scrubby land. Matthew Stong comes out in a truck to personally open the gate.
I had heard that Stong, the owner/manager/designer of Preferred Produce, pays "living wages." The average wage for a non-supervisory worker at the company is about $12.50, he says. In New Mexico most greenhouse workers get the minimum wage of $7.25.
There are 12 paid workers right now, plus 5 Stong family members who are working without pay for the time being. (Stong's wife, children, father and mother-in-law all live for now in office spaces in the greenhouse.) When the second greenhouse is finished in the fall, the company should have 17 paid workers. Stong also intends to put into place a profit-sharing plan, possibly before the end of the year.
Stong is striving to create a worker-friendly environment. Compared to the usual atmosphere at food processors in southwest New Mexico, where I have worked, it's as if the Preferred Produce workplace has arrived in a spaceship with new attitudes and rules. At those local food processors, the management structure is entirely top-down.
Stong asked his employees what hours they wanted to work, and they decided it should be from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., when the coolest temperatures are.
Gloria Lucero asked if she could get one day a week off when she had a baby recently, and Stong gave it to her. Gloria's aunt now fills in for her one day a week. Gloria laughs when she tells how she had a really hard time getting a day off for a doctor's appointment at the last job she had.
The large greenhouse, covering one acre of land, consists mostly of row after row of tall cherry- and grape-tomato plants. About 80% of the produce is tomatoes, Stong says. The rest consists of several varieties of lettuce, bell peppers, spices (including cilantro, basil, mint and tarragon), squash and cantaloupes.
The place is lush and almost jungle-like, despite the "evaporation pads" on the wall and some big fans blowing on the opposite wall. All water is recycled.
This is certified fully organic produce. Preferred Produce uses no pesticides or herbicides. Very long yellow strips of flypaper are stuck to the posts. The workers push "sulphur rocks" into the soil to kill russet mite eggs.
"The russet mite almost killed everything in the greenhouse last November," says Stong. He says they have no crop insurance. "You have to have a minimum acreage in order to do it. I'm one acre."
The workers need to learn quite a lot about plant care, including identification of pests. Part of the care of the vines of cherry and grape tomatoes is learning to clip them to a cord so they won't flop over too much and to "let them down," or lean gently to one side, when they get too tall.
Stong is aware that greenhouse workers in Mexico and Texas use stilts to pick cherry tomatoes, a practice he considers too dangerous. That's why he doesn't let the plants grow too high. He's considering using a kind of pulley cord originally made for clotheslines as a more efficient way to lower the plants.
Stong is always tinkering and designing. Plants grow from cubes of soil within long white metallic planks he designed.
Crafting the workplace also preoccupies his mind. All employees get 10-day paid vacations. Stong and his partner, Sean Parnes, will do a job first to understand how difficult it will be for the worker. They offer free sodas and fruit juices to the workers.
One day before our interview, the first website for Preferred Produce appeared online (www.preferredproduce.us). From this website they're launching their home delivery plan. Customers order by phone different kinds of boxes that contain several vegetables, and get them delivered to their door. For now Preferred Produce is only advertising by postcards and ads to be hung on door handles. "We try to do things that require employees," says Stong. "We hand pick. We try to do everything by hand — one, to use more employees and two, the quality is better."
One interesting aspect of the delivery plan is that the boxes will be available to food-stamp users. "We signed up with SNAP," says Stong. It will mean people on food stamps will have better nutrition.
For now they will just deliver to Luna County and Las Cruces. Stong approached Silver City authorities and they rebuffed him in the name of protecting Grant County growers. "We support this. I don't have a problem with it," says Stong.
Stong is a firm believer in using local produce as much as possible. He says this concept will solve two major problems in the US: poor nutrition and unemployment.
Preferred Produce sells at the farmers market in Las Cruces and at two farmers markets in El Paso. They also sell at Peppers Supermarket in Deming and to high-end restaurants in Las Cruces.
Stong's business philosophy might be summed up in his statement: "I think everything in society has a function. The function of business is to make jobs, not to make a profit. If we make a profit, we make a profit."
He also believes wholeheartedly in local production for agriculture. He was a USDA consultant for six years in Taiwan, where "no farm was allowed to have more than 200 acres, and they all sell locally," Stong says. "The average farmer [there] makes more money than someone who works in the city."
He has an impressive list of university degrees: one in economics from George Washington University, a master's in soil and water science at the University of California at Riverside, and a PhD in agriculture and biosystem engineering from the University of Arizona.
He has worked at projects in developing countries such as Nigeria and Mexico, and has done financial projections and planning for developing countries for the World Bank.
One employee at Preferred Produce, Oscar Sandoval, is about to go to NMSU in the fall with an interest in archeology. He has worked for a year, and the generous salary he's getting is helping pay utility bills at his home in Columbus, buy new clothes for himself, his mother and his little sister, and support his education. He's getting a $1,500 scholarship from Preferred Produce.
James Carroll, who lives in Deming, has worked in construction in 42 states and Australia, but loves Preferred Produce. "I've gotten way better money," he says. "But it's not for the money — it's because I'm home with my family." He used to work on weekends.
"But it's not the fewer hours, either," he says. "It's just working here. I love the job. I'm doing something different all the time. I love getting up in the morning. Matthew takes good care of us."
Jose Hernandez (otherwise known as "Junior" because there are four Joses in the workplace), age 17, has worked there for four months, after working at an onion shed and in the fields. He has a baby on the way, and says the higher pay "has helped me a lot."
Jose Chen Lopez from Los Mochis, Sinaloa, has a PhD from the University of Arizona. He's going to take his experience at Preferred Produce back home to create jobs.
Stong's vision of the future of Preferred Produce includes ultimately about 50 employees working in six greenhouses. But it won't happen overnight. He won't build a third greenhouse for about two years.
He may be able to deliver boxes to El Paso someday, once he gets Texas' tax system figured out.
He's working out a plan to include in his boxes produce from other local growers, such as pecans, chile, onions and watermelon. Also included may be vegetables from a community garden in Deming and carrots cultivated by elementary-school children.
"I'm not leftist, I'm not rightist," says Stong. "I don't believe in politics per se. The only way to make change is to do it yourself. Period."
To learn more about Preferred Produce, call (575) 527-9807 or visit www.preferredproduce.us. Marjorie Lilly writes the Borderlines column.
Ghost of a Chance?
Developer Pegasus Global Holdings may be just as illusory
as its $1 billion high-tech ghost town.
by David A. Fryxell
Before Las Cruces goes chasing after a second chance with Pegasus Global Holdings, maybe city officials ought to make sure the "ghost town" developer isn't just an empty shell itself. Pegasus announced last month that it was calling off much-ballyhooed plans to build a $1 billion (originally $200 million) testing town on a 15-square mile site near Hobbs. The "Center for Innovation, Technology and Testing" (CITE) was supposed to be a model city without any actual residents, to be used for testing products ranging from driverless cars to self-flushing toilets.