Patti Bess: Farming in the fall
Walking into the Santa Fe Farmers Market, I could quickly see the subtle and not so subtle differences from our Nevada County markets. For one thing, there are over 150 vendors on any given Saturday. They come from various small towns throughout the northern counties of New Mexico selling everything from buffalo meats to desert honeys, herbal remedies, seeds, flowers, pecans, pomegranates and of course, beans, corn and chilies.
The market is located not far from the historic downtown plaza in an area called the Railyard. Locals and tourists meander in from side streets and some arrive on bicycles. The Rail Trail and many other biking options crisscross the entire city of Santa Fe. It’s international people watching at its finest. And everyone is/was wearing a mask.
Santa Fe has been a world renowned tourist destination since the 1930s or before. As I stroll the market, I overhear people speaking German, French, Spanish and two gregarious Minnesota farmers asking enthusiastic questions of busy vendors. There is the scent of hot chilies or Spanish food that permeates the air. In addition to the conversations around me, a background rumbling sound draws me to one of the roasters that tumbles and rotates the fresh green or red chilies. October is chili roasting time, and suddenly I feel hungry.
I learned very quickly. If you don’t want to sound totally ignorant, don’t ask for sweet peppers or the welcoming smile might turn to a grimace. Chilies are king and every farmer has his chili story and specialty.
The market began in 1968 with a few pick-up trucks parked in this same location. It grew slowly over the years and is still managed by a board of farmer/directors. In 2000 the city planners wanted to build more commercial space in the railyard area, but residents banded together to object. Because their downtown plaza had become dominated by tourists, they wanted to see the Railyard develop into more of a community meeting center. The Farmers Market Institute was formed and money was raised to build the current pavilion which was finished in 2008.
The market pavilion is a 9,300 square foot LEED certified building that is rented for a variety of events, nonprofit offices and a school.
I sat down with Kierstan Pickens, the Executive Director of the Farmers Market Institute, and she discussed the many programs related to the market that the Institute oversees. Backed by grant monies, individual donations, fundraisers, rents for the Pavillion and sometimes the New Mexico legislature; their community support is enviable. Their micro loan program for farmers and farm-related organizations has given away three quarters of a million dollars in the last decade. They recently developed a program called Fresh RX which allows doctors to write a prescription for foods at the farmers market. It is specifically intended for persons with lifestyle related diseases where a change of diet would benefit them. They also received some monies from their legislature to offer a Double UP Food Bucks where low income folks can afford more fresh produce from the market.
On first appearance driving through New Mexico’s high desert landscapes, it could be difficult to see it as an agricultural state. One thinks more of the rich, flat lands of the Midwest and California’s broad valleys. Sprinkled throughout the state but mostly in the north are micro habitats that have had a very long agricultural tradition. Pickens told me that most older farmers/ranchers at the market maintain small five acre properties that have likely been in their family for several generations. The younger farmers often lease land here as the price of good land is out of reach. And there are also a large number of what she called “itinerant farmers.” Before the Spanish arrived, the native populations farmed and raised animals for thousands of years (and still do).
Water rights are a longtime challenge to the state due to such low levels of rainfall. Some farms have their own wells or utilize water catchment systems. The primary source, however, are assequias, or irrigation ditches much like our Nevada Irrigation District. These canals store and distribute winter run off largely for flood irrigation. The assequias are run like a cooperative where each farm family must maintain and be responsible for their section of it.
There is a vibrancy here in New Mexico that bespeaks a commitment to localism and a pride in the long standing agricultural tradition despite its many challenges. It was indeed inspiring.
Try this delicious, easy to prepare appetizer. Shishito peppers are actually a small, mild pepper originally from Japan that New Mexico farmers have been growing in recent years. They can be fried or roasted and eaten whole. They can often be found at our farmers markets in Nevada County.
One half pound shishito peppers
Two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
One quarter cup sesame seeds, toasted
Two to four tablespoons toasted sesame oil
Salt to taste
Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high. Add olive oil, then add the shishito peppers. Sauté’ until peppers start to blister. Transfer peppers to a heat-proof bowl; toss with toasted sesame oil and then the toasted sesame seeds. Serve as an appetizer or a side dish. They could also be roasted in an oven or grill.
Patti Bess is a freelance writer and cookbook author. She lives in Grass Valley.
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