Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
CIBOLA COUNTY – It’s noon on a recent Thursday morning at El Morro Feed & Seed, the non-profit country store on NM 53, 40 miles west of Grants.
Outside, there is a bite of cold in the air and patches of snow on the sides of the nearby mountains. But it’s intimate and cozy inside, amid shelves of fresh, packaged foods and the bank of freezers along one wall.
Store manager Stephanie Grenadier and cashier Walker Ricon are posted behind the long checkout counter as customers explore their options.
Matthew De Gumbia, 52, who identifies as a retired cannabis grower from northern California, buys lettuce and carrots.
Emily Brent, 25, a wilderness steward trainee at nearby El Morro National Monument, filled her basket with oat milk, coffee, chips, lettuce, carrots, stuffed grape leaves and vegan cookies without gluten.
“The store has high quality products, and I didn’t have to go to Grants or Gallup,” said De Gumbia, who has lived in the area for two years. “During the height of the pandemic, the store was a lifeline, especially for older people who didn’t want to go to crowded places.”
Brent said she does most of her shopping in Grants.
“But I come here for the local products and these cookies which are so good,” she says. “And the people who work here are beautiful, bright people. I leave here satisfied. It’s a welcoming store. »
Grenadier, 58, manager of El Morro since July 2020, knows the store is more than animal feed, seeds, local produce and great cookies.
“People are coming out of this pandemic time alone,” she said. “They come for a cup of coffee. They come just to see a face.
But as vital as it is to residents scattered throughout the remote areas of Cibola and adjacent McKinley counties, the store is on the brink of failure due to the disruption of normal supply and distribution routes caused by the pandemic and the loss to fire of the Albuquerque Mill which provided most of the hay and feed for El Morro’s ranching customers.
“It all happened so fast,” Grenadier said. “It doesn’t look good, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better.”
Local resident Kate Brown founded the store as a private business venture in 2008.
“She started mostly as a grocery store. Food and hay were what she needed,” said Grenadier, who considers Brown a mentor. “She didn’t bring groceries for about four years. .”
In 2020, Brown donated the store to Work in Beauty Inc., a nonprofit whose mission is sustainable agriculture and supporting local farmers. El Morro Feed & Seed has become the place to store and distribute locally grown and raised food.
Local farmers supply the store with eggs, meat and vegetables such as spinach, chard, asparagus, arugula, garlic, cucumbers, celery, tomatoes, green beans, summer and winter squash, as well as apples, strawberries and raspberries.
“When the growing season kicks in, people call to see what’s in there. ‘Has Jackie dropped off some lettuce yet?'” Grenadier said. “Grocery has become more important during the pandemic.”
It’s a 45 minute drive from Grants and over an hour from Gallup. And here, where many people live on dirt roads, journeys can take much longer than that when rain turns roads into mud and snow and ice turn journeys into treacherous expeditions. Add the restrictions in place at the start of COVID-19, and El Morro Feed & Seed has become essential rather than a fallback option.
“Financially, 2020 was the best year the store has ever had,” said Grenadier. “Thousands (of dollars) above any other year. We didn’t have to write any grants.
But about a year ago, the Albuquerque feed mill burned down.
“Food and hay are what keep the store open,” Grenadier said. “Without this, the store’s future is uncertain.”
The Albuquerque grocery store that burned down was making deliveries right to the store’s door. There are other sources of feed and hay, but getting it transported to El Morro is the challenge. The store is seeking approximately $20,000 in grants and donations to purchase two trucks to sell in the area.
“A truck is a diesel forklift, in which we could transport the necessary supplies,” Grenadier said. “The other is a licensed food truck that would be used as a community kitchen for local chefs and bakers to prepare food that would be legal to sell in our store.”
Grenadier said the governor’s office and the offices of US Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján supported the store’s grant applications.
“But most federal grants won’t be reviewed until May,” she said. “I don’t know if we can hold out until May.”
Grenadier is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area and lived for 30 years on Boston’s South Shore. She studied fine art photography at San Francisco State and earned a master’s degree in Expressive Arts Therapy from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also went to school for massage therapy.
She and her husband, Tim, decided to teach a digital photography workshop in 2016 at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, which is not far from El Morro Feed & Seed.
“I had no idea what this place was like,” Grenadier said of the rugged and mostly wild part of Cibola County she now calls home. “I didn’t think I could live far from the ocean. This place is crazy. But I said to my husband, “I want to move here. He said: ‘I want to move here too.’
She still struggles to explain why.
“There’s a strange magic here,” she said. “Part of that is the community. We were so instantly embraced. Because it’s so hard here, this bunch of crazy people take care of each other no matter what they believe.
Now Tim works in media for the Wolf Sanctuary. Grenadier also worked there before becoming director of El Morro. They live in a community called Candy Kitchen, a 30-minute drive from the store.
“It’s unincorporated land,” Grenadier said. “Old ranchers, young farm wannabes, veterans, new hippies and survivalists live here.”
El Morro Feed & Seed is west of the Continental Divide and Bandera Volcano and east of El Morro National Monument.
Grenadier said the store serves an isolated group of communities made up of a diverse and eclectic population, including members of the Navajo Nation and Zuni Pueblo and an above-average representation of LGBTQIA people. Nearby is the Zuni Mountain Sanctuary, founded and administered by Radical Faeries, a counterculture movement that combines gay consciousness with secular spirituality.
And there has been a large influx of new people to the area since the pandemic began, Grenadier said.
“These are people who come to a place where they can get away from people,” she said. “Some are people who had lost their jobs. Land here is cheap. In any case, it was at the beginning. »
Manuel Sanchez, 71, brings nine dozen eggs for sale to El Morro Feed and Seed. He has 28 chickens at his home in El Morro Ranches, the community where he and his wife, retired teachers who taught in El Paso, moved to three years ago.
The Montañita Co-op in Albuquerque is the only business outside of this area delivering deliveries—fresh produce, health items, pet food—to El Morro now.
The store gets a lot of produce from area farmers such as Sanchez.
“We buy 12 to 15 dozen eggs a week,” Grenadier said. “We only bring in store-bought eggs in November and December. They are fresh eggs the rest of the time.
Sanchez doesn’t just deliver eggs to the store, he shops there.
“It’s 15 minutes to get here and 40 minutes to Grants, plus gas,” he said. “People come here to buy, but also to talk to people they know.”
Chris Loeffler, 70, also sells eggs at the store. And lamb meat and a wide variety of vegetables. She and her husband, an industrial engineer who worked for the Department of Defense, moved to the Albuquerque area in 2006. She was also a teacher before becoming a full-fledged farmer.
“The store has good, healthy, natural foods, not the ones you buy at convenience stores,” she said. “People are trying to stay healthy.”
Sienna Wind, 14, and her brother, Chaska, 10, exit El Morro Feed & Seed with heavy shopping bags.
“It’s like healthy food,” Sienna said. “We buy green vegetables, spinach and lettuce. My grandmother gets organic Cheetos and piñon sodas.
Sienna’s grandmother is Kaiiba Mountain, 62. Mountain and her grandchildren moved here from Taos four years ago.
“We just like living in the woods,” Mountain said. “We live off the grid and collect rainwater. This store is so important to us. Being able to get quality pet food, as well as livestock needs, seeds, plant starters, and garden supplies is essential for most of us here.
“And it’s a good source of community. We live in Candy Kitchen and hardly see anyone. It’s a social event for us. It’s good for the spirit, good energy. It would be a huge loss for many if it were to close.