Serving the High Plains

TableTop Cooperative loses its state grant

The locally based TableTop Cooperative recently lost a nearly $25,000 state grant that would have enabled it to buy a walk-in cooler to store produce and increase its ability to sell it to a larger region.

The loss of that grant also scuttled its ability to secure a federal grant of up to $40,000 to buy food processing equipment, said the co-owner of Tucumcari plant nursery La Casa Verde, one of the cooperative’s key members.

The New Mexico Economic Development Department in February announced the $24,740.03 Healthy Food Financing Award for the TableTop Co-op to buy the cooler and other equipment so it could set up a regional food hub.

The agency stated at the time the TableTop food hub “will enhance processing and storage capabilities, facilitating improved community food access and fostering agricultural growth in the region.”

According to earlier information from the state, equipment must be ordered by June for the grant money. The state also had to approve a memorandum of understanding between TableTop and La Casa Verde.

However, the cooperative received a letter from the EDD in late April, stating the grant agreement was terminated and demanded repayment of the funds. It also issued a clawback invoice on April 30.

According to the letter, “the activities described in the project description of the Grant Agreement have not progressed satisfactorily in the Department’s reasonable discretion.”

The agency stated the TableTop Cooperative could submit an application for future grants if the earlier grant was repaid in a timely manner.

Bruce Kransow, public information officer for the EDD, declined to elaborate on why the grant was terminated.

TableTop secretary Robert Hockaday said in a phone interview he received clarification on the cooperative’s shortcomings regarding the grant during a recent teleconference with EDD officials.

“They said that we didn’t appear to be ready enough for the grant and felt it would be a lot of extra work for us to try and be ready to to locate the (cooler) and do all the stuff to get them fully operational,” Hockaday said.

“So they said, ‘Just reapply when you’re ready.’”

Hockaday said TableTop was having trouble finding a suitable site to place the cooler.

Hockaday also said officials told him the cooperative needed to fulfill certain accounting requirements, including a registration with the Dun & Bradstreet business analysis firm, and other details “that are hard for a small, little group of farmers” that make up the cooperative.

He said the cooperative also needs to designate a professional manager, have two people overseeing its finances and implement more robust safety procedures for its produce.

Hockaday said “it probably wouldn’t take us long” to meet the requirements.

Steve Farmer, co-owner of La Casa Verde, was less optimistic it could land a similar grant on a second attempt.

“When they claw back one, it’s like a tattoo you never get rid of,” he said. “You never overcome that.”

Farmer said the loss of the grant and the cooler also affected TableTop’s ability to land federal Resilient Food Systems Infrastructure Program funding of about $40,000. He said the second grant would have been used to buy an industrial food canner, label maker, freeze dryer and other equipment.

Farmer also complained about the lack of support from local governments for TableTop’s initiatives.

He particularly was critical of the Greater Tucumcari Economic Development Cooperation, which lost its federal nonprofit status in 2016. Interim EDC director Kristine Olsen has been attempting to restore its nonprofit status since the departure of previous director Patrick Vanderpool last summer.

Hockaday said state officials didn’t mention the local EDC as an issue during their teleconference with the TableTop board.

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