LEDA investments seek to build NM's food chain

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Stephen Hamway, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
·4 min read
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Apr. 19—SANTA FE — Over the past several years, Beck & Bulow has grown from a stand selling bison meat at northern New Mexico farmers markets to a supplier for 250 large restaurants and other businesses across the region. And they aren't planning to stop expanding anytime soon.

"There's a lot of people here that want high-end meats," said co-founder J.P. Bulow. We have certain things here that you can't get anywhere else."

With the help of $300,000 in state and local funding under the Local Economic Development Act, Bulow said, the company, which raises and sells sustainably sourced bison, beef, seafood and other meats, is looking for a 10,000-square-foot warehouse where it can dramatically scale up its online shipments of packaged meat.

Bulow said expanding the online side of the business — which currently accounts for around 20% of sales — will allow the company to add 52 jobs over 10 years and reach customers across the country, while bringing revenue back home to New Mexico.

"You're taking New Mexico animals, but then the money is coming in from out of state," he said.

Beck & Bulow is one of four New Mexico food processing companies that have received state funding to expand this year.

Earlier in 2021, the state provided money to help Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm, Bueno Foods and La Primera Tortilla in Sunland Park. Each company announced expansions supported by a total of $1.05 million in state LEDA funding. All told, the four companies are expected to hire people for at least 139 new positions over the next decade, according to state documents.

Just as important, said Mark Roper, division director for the state Economic Development Department, the expansions solidify the respective companies in New Mexico and help fill a key gap in the state's food supply chain.

"That investment is going to continue to bring dividends for decades, in jobs and payroll," Roper said.

Growing and raising food has long been part of New Mexico's identity, but, Roper said, the state largely lacks the capacity to convert raw material into a finished product on an industrial scale.

A study from New Mexico State University showed that between 95% and 97% of food produced in New Mexico is exported for processing.

"We grow it or raise it, and then it goes someplace else, and then it comes back to us in a grocery store," Roper said.

Because of that, Roper said the state has prioritized helping companies that can provide more finished food products in the state. Under the current administration, EDD identified "sustainable and value-added agriculture" — which encompasses a mix of food processing efforts — as one of eight key industries for the state to focus on. The others are aerospace and defense, biosciences, sustainable and green energy, intelligent manufacturing, film and television, global trade, and cybersecurity.

The industry has accounted for 7% of the state's LEDA funding over the last 18 months, along with 14% of the projected jobs, according to data provided by EDD.

"We look at it as an investment.We look for a return on investment," Roper said. "It's just our return comes in long-term tax income and quality jobs."

The expansions range in size and scope depending on the project, but largely focus on establishing more production capacity in New Mexico. Bueno Foods is planning a 25,000-square-foot $10 million freezer warehouse that will allow the Albuquerque company to store more of its green chile in New Mexico rather than in out-of-state warehouses.

"This really helps reduce cost and saves money from storage costs outside of the state," Ana Baca, vice president of marketing for Bueno Foods, told the Journal in March.

For La Primera Tortilla, a 39-year-old company in Sunland Park, the expansion will help the company keep up with demand by nearly doubling its capacity.

Juan Carlos Favela, secretary treasurer for La Primera, said the company moved into its current location about six years ago. He said the 8,800-square-foot facility was an expansion, but the company got into local Walmarts shortly thereafter and once again felt the pressure to expand.

"It just grew very quickly to where now we're at the same point that we were when we first moved to that building," Favela said.

Favela said the company is planning to build another 8,000-square-foot facility, hire 14 new employees over the next three years and invest $2.7 million in new equipment. The expansion will allow the company to double its production of corn tortillas — the company's most popular product — while dramatically scaling up its capacity to produce flour tortillas.

"It's a big step, because now we're thinking of distributing and sending our products out of town," he said.