2015 Leadership Award Honoree Don Bustos

Farmer and Co-Director, American Friends Service Committee

One day, when he was five years old, Don Bustos was scurrying across his family’s farm on the border of the Sonoran Desert. “My grandpa stopped me, handed me the reins to a mule, and said, ‘Come here, mijito, this mule needs to be guided.’ I was really proud to be given that responsibility.”

Reflecting on the incident years later, Bustos realized that the mule didn’t need steering at all—his grandfather was keeping his eager young grandson from running through a freshly ploughed field. “Instead of hollering at me, my grandfather assigned me a job,” he explains. “He taught me a way to be important.”

Now a revered sustainable and organic farmer in his native New Mexico, Bustos still plants blackberries, asparagus, lettuce, and dozens of other crops on a three-and-a half-acre portion of the land his ancestors have farmed for a staggering three centuries. In the 1970s, when the property had deteriorated due to financial challenges, Bustos resuscitated it, installing plastic hoop houses to stretch the growing season and replacing commodity crops with “high-value organic produce.”

As a spokesperson for minority farmers, Bustos, who claims both native Pueblo and Spanish ancestry, ensures they have access to USDA Farm Service Agency loans and subsidies. “In underserved, limited-resource communities, people just don’t know about the services that are available to them,” he explains. Bustos also honors his grandfather’s commitment to empowering young farmers through a series of training programs offered by the American Friends Service Committee’s New Mexico branch, where he is co-director. “It’s a simple idea,” he says of the state’s longstanding family-farming tradition. “Make yourselves healthy, make your communities healthy, and other people will replicate it.”

“Don truly helps farmers understand the role that they play in agricultural industry,” says Cynthia Hayes, executive director of the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network and a 2013 JBF Leadership Award honoree, who regularly sits alongside Bustos at policymaking tables. “He’s always in the field, because answering the phone and being in the office—that ain’t it!” she adds. “If you’re not out there with the farmers, how can you understand what’s necessary?”

Bustos’s commitment to community is most evident when he discusses the importance of acequias, shared irrigation canals that siphon water to farms and ranches across his drought-prone state. (It’s no coincidence that he also serves on the board of the New Mexico Acequia Association.) “Acequias mean that everyone has equal access to water,” says Bustos. “It’s an alternative to the Western capitalist model, where one person or group owns natural resources.”

The agricultural trailblazer says he still finds motivation in ancestral anecdotes, namely the story of a female family member who traveled alone from Mexico City to the northernmost sliver of the Spanish Empire (present-day Santa Fe) circa 1694. “She was nine years old when she got there and lived in the pueblos, climbing up and down ladders with handfuls of wood and buckets of water,” he describes. “That resilience, that passion, and knowing that we’re here for a higher purpose, is real inspiration.” 

—Aarti Virani