The Truck Farm – Local Economic Development (and southwestern condiments) at its best

I was in Las Cruces, New Mexico this week for work with the downtown organization. If you wish you can read about that assignment and Las Cruces in the previous blog.But among the coolest part of the work I do is the absolutely serendipity nature of the people I meet and the lessons I learn. And Jim and Cleda Hawman and their company The Truck Farm are great examples.

Jim’s a farmer (at least that’s how he bills himself) although for over twenty years he also worked for Sara Lee. Both Jim and Cleda are Las Cruces natives. In 1996 they began The Truck Farm in the fertile Mesilla Valley west of Las Cruces. Jim experimented with specialty crops finally deciding to specialize in berries. As production increased by 1998 it made sense to buy a local fruit and gift shop.

Well, as happens when entrepreneurs establish a differentiated market and meet customer demand, the business grew. By the end of 1999 The Truck Farm acquired two other small firms. The first was Tia Rita Products which produced chile-based products and gourmet spices and flavorings as well as packaged, easily prepared southwest dishes. Before the end of the year the Truck Farm bought the Desert Farms line of chile-based jellies, honey and other condiments.

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But even though now their product range was substantial Jim continued to experiment. Here’s what Cleda told me. “In 2000 we had a bumper crop of blackberries, there were tons of them. So I said to Jim, ‘you’ve got to figure out something to do with all those berries!’” So Jim did. He experimented with mixing berries and chiles until he finally came up with Besito Caliente which means “A Hot Little Kiss”. It’s a syrup-like product that you can use for everything – flavoring margaritas, pouring on ice cream, spreading on pancakes, adding to cake batter, using as fruit dip, mixing with cream cheese…literally a hundred uses. They once entered Besito Caliente in a salsa contest as a joke but ended up as the winner. Another time they came in second – but there were 900 entrants. By last year Besito Caliente constituted over 40% of the sales of the Truck Farm. Well I brought half a suitcase of Truck Farm products home with me and have already dipped into the Jalapeno mustard and Cierra’s Gourmet Mustard.

But I’m not in the food review business (although I found at least one source – the Hot Sauce Blog blog which raved about Tia Rita’s products) and I’m not a shill for some small company in New Mexico. Rather what excited me about meeting Jim and Cleda and seeing their business was what a great economic development story it is.

Here is this small enterprise in relatively rural New Mexico that has built up a national, specialized market for their products. The majority of sales are wholesale to restaurants and gourmet food shops who use and/or resell their products. They do have a limited internet presence through the online market New Mexico’s Ownbut Jim promises to have their own website in the not too distant future. And there is a small retail store attached to their production facility in Las Cruces.

They are selling their products nationally, thus bringing dollars into the local economy. But their purchases of both labor and materials are almost exclusively local – recirculating those dollars into the region’s economy. That is effective economic development.

But here’s what else impressed me. Every Wednesday and Saturday morning there is a farmers’ market in downtown Las Cruces. Jim is always there with a range of his products. But he also uses that as an opportunity for first hand market research — having people taste new products, compare different iterations, make recommendations and state preferences. Talking about getting input from your customers! And Jim takes it one step further. He says “I know how to grow things, and how to mix things as a product, but I don’t know about naming the product after I’ve developed it.” So what does he do? He asks his customers what he should call the product. The name Besito Caliente came from customer suggestions.

The small production facility (which Jim describes as very low tech) is viewable through windows from the retail section – you can literally see your product being prepared. If you ask nicely, Cleda will give you a couple of recipes for use of some of the products and suggestions on how to use others.

This is one great business…and even a better business model. The good news is that their son has now joined them at the Truck Farm.

So buy their products if you like spicy southwestern cuisine (and I definitely do). But more importantly learn from Jim and Cleda Hawman. They are what great small business and great economic development are all about.