By David A. Fryxell
The tomatoes you'll be eating this summer are growing right now in Sharlene Grunerud's greenhouses, nestled among the leafing-out cottonwoods in the Lower Mimbres Valley. The jalapenos you'll buy at the Silver City Farmers' Market some sunny Saturday morning, weeks from now, are aborning as leafy green sprigs on flats several feet off the ground beneath the sheltering arches of twin greenhouses, where it's a constant, balmy 80 degrees even when the New Mexico spring nights flirt with freezing. The basil that maybe you'll marry with those tomatoes to make spaghetti sauce, or pulverize into pesto, would barely add up to a tablespoon of anything yet; its low carpet looks more like something destined for a model-railroad layout than for a kitchen table.
Give it time, though, along with Grunerud's tender, loving care. She moves among the flats of greenery, head shielded by the broad nimbus of a straw hat, ministering to each cluster of plants in turn. The chile peppers, slowest to germinate, have been here since late February. Every few weeks, she'll plant a fresh flat of the vigorous basil.
But at some point this summer it will all be gone. Farmers' market customers will come up to Grunerud or her husband and farming partner, Mike Alexander, and ask, "Are you going to get more of the basil in?" Or tomatoes, peppers, nursery stock or others among the wide variety of things they grow at Mimbres Farms, their acreage in the dot on the map labeled San Juan, NM, near the junction of highways 152 and 61.
And Grunerud will have to shake her head. Nope.
"In town, you can just order more," she says. "But this isn't Albertson's."
Farmers' market crops come and go with the season, but not Sharlene Grunerud. When the Silver City Farmers' Market opens its 16th year downtown on May 7, in conjunction with the MainStreet Project's annual Celebration of Spring (see box), she'll be there, just as she has since the beginning. This will also be Grunerud's 10th year as market manager, a thankless job she did for the first five years at zero pay. (This year she got a raise from $35 per Saturday to $50.) Every Saturday for 26 weeks, though the market runs from 8:30 a.m. to noon, Grunerud will be there early and stay late, juggling the minutiae of the market, enforcing its rules and massaging growers' egos while helping Mike staff their own large booth.
"Sharlene is a powerhouse of energy," says Sarah Grant of the New Mexico Farmers' Marketing Association.
Last year the Silver City Farmers' Market—one of 40 farmers' markets across New Mexico, from Sunland Park to Aztec, Gallup to Clovis—racked up a record $72,500 in total sales, based on the four-percent fees growers pay the market. That's up nearly 50 percent just since 2001, symptomatic of the booming appeal of farmers markets not only in New Mexico but nationwide. The number of vendors here hit a new high, too, at 42. Not all show up every Saturday, of course—and thank goodness, because the market's location off Bullard Street has room for only 25 10-by-20-foot spaces, plus another 10 in an adjacent lot. Several larger vendors occupy more than one space.
Those larger growers—perhaps a half-dozen full-time operations like Mimbres Farms—form the foundation of the weekly market. Backyard gardeners come and go, but the handful of serious farmers are there every Saturday and depend on the market for their livelihood.
"If it's not their only source of income, it's a big part of their income," says Grunerud, eyes bright behind the ovals of her glasses. "Mike and I are lucky—we don't also have to have day jobs."
She tilts back the brim of her hat, wipes her work gloves on her blue jeans, and goes on, "One of the secrets of our success is that we have such variety. We'll try lots of different things every year—that's how I find out what works. And we'll put up signs, 'New This Year!'" The only limiting factor, she says, is the cost of propane to keep the greenhouses at 80 degrees. Their nursery stock, however, grows outside all year, so it's weather-hardy.
Having lots of variety and lots of produce is important to attract Saturday-morning customers. "Studies have shown that people's eyes are drawn to density," Grunerud explains. One year the New Mexico Farmers' Marketing Association ran a statewide contest for the best booth display, and Mimbres Farms won second place. That's the power of "density" for you, plus having everything carefully marked, she says.
Another key to Mimbres Farms' appeal is that all their produce is certified organic—a complex process that means they must track every seedling, log every tomato. "We have some customers who've been with us since the market's inception. Originally, I'd say 20 percent bought from us because our produce is organic, 80 percent because it's beautiful," Grunerud says. "As more people become concerned about the quality of what they eat, and the kind of people who live in Grant County changes, that percentage is growing. Now it's maybe 30 or 40 percent because it's organic.
"Every year we get more customers, keeping the old and picking up new ones."
Grunerud added the market manager duties to her Saturday selling routine just a few years after the farmers' market began. "I took it over because nobody else wanted to do it," she recalls. Then another manager stepped in for three years before Grunerud took the job back, seemingly for good. She keeps hoping somebody else—ideally, someone who doesn't already have a booth to man at the market—will step forward and let her get back to full-time farming.
So far, though, no replacement has materialized, which comes as no surprise to Grunerud. "Give up every Saturday during the summertime," she summarizes the job description. "Who'd want to do that?"
As introductions travel around the room, newcomers are revealed among the veterans, who introduce themselves by name, crop and number of years at the market: "This is my fifth year." "Last year was my first year." Through their grandson, the Hispanic couple—Jose and Gloria Barraza—proudly announce that they've been selling at the Silver City Farmers' Market since the very first year.
"At first it was small. Now it's big," the grandson translates.
The seed for the farmers' market was planted, back in 1989, by the then-MainStreet Project manager, Pauly Walker. After a round of mining layoffs, store occupancy in downtown Silver City had plummeted. Walker—who also happened to be a farmer—thought a farmers' market would be a good way to draw people downtown on Saturday mornings, and went to the city for support and the appropriate ordinances. MainStreet managed the market directly for the first two years, then turned it over to, in effect, a growers' cooperative. The MainStreet Project continues to serve as a sort of administrative umbrella over the market, and recently honored the farmer's market as its event of the year.
"The farmers' market is a very important part of downtown," MainStreet Project manager Frank Milan tells the assembled growers. "We do everything we can to promote it. I'm happy it's still a farmers' market; it's important to keep that integrity."
Unlike some New Mexico farmers' markets, the Silver City market requires that everything sold there be produced in Grant or Catron County by the vendor. (Two vendors who've been with the market since its inception, when it badly needed farmers to participate, have been "grandfathered" in; one continues to come all the way from near Arrey.) Catron County was added two years ago in hopes—largely unfulfilled as yet—of attracting raspberries from the Apache Creek area. Grant County growers hail from Bayard to Buckhorn to the heart of Silver City. "The real farmers," Grunerud says, "are in one of the valleys—Mimbres, Arenas, Mangas."
The participating vendors, she adds, are "a really mixed group, a culturally diverse group. From cowboys to hippies, Anglos to Hispanics, this is one place where they all mix."
After the five or six large-scale farmers, the rest of the produce comes mostly from small-plot gardeners. "They love to plant, and sometimes plant more than they can eat," Grunerud explains. "It's amazing what you can grow on a small piece of property if you know what you're doing."
Among the gardening group are students from the Meadowhawk Erdkinder school in Arenas Valley. The school includes both growing and selling in its curriculum, giving kids experience at everything from planting seeds to making change.
Last year was a bumper fruit crop, which brought many first-timers to sell their surplus apples and peaches at the farmers' market. Grunerud can trace the harvests by the X marks on her attendance sheet, which multiply like bird tracks about midway through the market year: "See? The fruit started coming in on the seventh of August. We had a lot of people who came until all the peaches were gone, then it dropped off."
Otherwise, she adds, "There's not a lot of churn. Our market is a real consistent one."
Besides the growers, the market attracts a handful of bakers—notably Barb Fila, whose moniker of "Badass Baker" initially elicited some shocked whispering. Last year was the first for meat, in the form of grass-fed beef raised by Joe Hollister (see the December 2004 Desert Exposure). The beef must be slaughtered in a USDA-approved facility—the meat lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson—and is then vacuum sealed for sale. New this year will be cashmere, straight off goats raised locally by Sarah Jane Gendron.
All you have to do to start selling at the Silver City Farmers' Market, Grunerud says, is sign a piece of paper saying you won't sue the town and promise to pay the four-percent fee. "I don't even ask them how much they sold," she adds. "I just go around with my bank bag saying, 'Put it in.' Some people want me to know how much they've sold. They're so proud, with their fee all folded up with a paperclip."
A vendor's take on a single Saturday might range from $800 to nothing, depending on what they have to sell and how busy the morning is. Pricing at the market is an inexact science: Some vendors study the stickers at Albertson's and then set their prices the same or a bit higher. "People will pay for quality and organic—to a point," Grunerud says. "But I believe you shouldn't have to be wealthy to have organic food." Despite the market's informal setting, not many customers try to bargain over price. "Just a few old guys, who enjoy it. They'd haggle over the price of water."
From just a handful of vendors that first year, the Silver City market grew rapidly. By the fourth or fifth year, Grunerud says, the market had reached nearly the number of growers it boasts today. But the ensuing drought years took a toll on the ranks of growers just as it did on their crops. Last year, the vendor numbers bounced back, and a typical Saturday morning in August brought two-dozen sellers.
The customers came in record numbers, too, reaching a peak of 1,035 on August 14. That was the "Peach Party," one of a series of special events—the Salsa Contest, an adjacent art fair, musical performers, the Apple Festival—cooked up to boost attendance.
The special events also help involve the larger community in the farmers' market. "For the apple-pie eating contest, the judges were each from a different part of the community," Grunerud explains. "The salsa-contest judges were home-ec majors, WIC [Women, Infants and Children] officers, people involved in food. One year all the city councilors were down there.
"When people feel part of something, they support it."
"It's definitely a national phenomenon," says Sarah Grant of the New Mexico Farmers' Marketing Association
With 40 farmers' markets statewide, she says, New Mexico has seen a doubling of markets since 1994. In the past decade, markets have popped up in Tucumcari, Roswell, Socorro, Portales, Mesilla, Truth or Consequences and downtown Albuquerque. This year, Columbus plans to launch one, and has brought Grunerud down to share her expertise.
Overall, in 2003 New Mexico markets were open for 11,434 vendor days and did $2.813 million in gross sales, nearly double the sales of just five years before. If you add up the peak customer numbers of all the markets, on their busiest days they saw a combined 20,778 customers.
The New Mexico Farmers' Marketing Association, a private, non-profit organization, contracts with the state Department of Agriculture to promote the state's markets. The legislature recently passed a $75,000 appropriation to fund the association. The association also partners with the New Mexico Economic Development Department, to help markets with advertising, and with the New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service.
"We provide counseling, but we don't want to interfere with what are really community-based markets, rooted in the communities where they are held," Grant explains. "Of the 40 different markets we have now, no two are exactly alike. We really encourage markets to stay that way, to respond to the needs of the community."
The association works with several national organizations, including the National Association of Farmers' Market Nutrition Programs, the Community Food Security Coalition and the North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association. There's also a Southwest Marketing Network, which supports small-scale, alternative and minority growers in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado.
According to the association's Esther Kovari, farmers' markets in New Mexico have been boosted by wider use of greenhouses, new growing technology and hardier crops. All those factors have combined to extend the markets' season. Many markets that formerly didn't open until late June or early July now debut in April or May. A few—Las Cruces (see box), Los Ranchos and the gala, carnival-like market in Santa Fe, which moves indoors in winter—do business all year long.
While farmers' markets are important to the livelihood of small, independent and alternative growers, they've become just as vital to the towns that host them. Many markets are sponsored by downtown groups or MainStreet Projects—besides Silver City, these include Albuquerque, Los Alamos, Portales, Roswell and Espanola. A few, such as in Las Cruces and Farmington, are directly run by the city itself or receive significant city backing. Other localities, Grant laments, "just don't get that farmers' markets are a valuable resource."
According to Kovari, "Farmers markets are a proven way to notch up the level of excitement in a community, and to create a public gathering place where people want to spend time."
Grant adds, "We live pretty fast-paced lives. There isn't that much time any more when people can hang out and see each other. Farmers' markets are pretty effective venues for that. That's one reason farmers' markets have been gaining in popularity. It may be the only two-hour block in your whole week when you're not in a rush."
She cites one study showing that for every dollar that customers spend at the farmers' market, they'll also spend $2 at neighboring stores. "People have been shopping at farmers' markets for as long as humans can remember. It's part of our cellular makeup," she adds. "If you can get them there, something deep within resonates and makes people feel good."
The growers who bring their produce to town evidently feel good about the community connection and hustle and bustle of a farmers' market as well. A 2002 study by the New York-based Project for Public Spaces found that vendors value the "sense of place and people" found at a market as highly as the economic benefits.
The trouble is, there aren't always enough growers to meet the demand. Long-time farmers are aging, their acreage being gobbled up by urban development as greedily as customers once consumed their produce. "We need a new generation of growers," Kovari maintains, warning, "The most common mistake is to forget about the farmers."
Grunerud came to Grant County as a teenager with her family in 1967. Her father was a miller, not a farmer, but she fondly remembers summers on her grandparents' Idaho farm, near the Canadian border. "They had thousands of acres of grain, but then Grandma had her acre, where she planted gardens. I would follow her around. Grandma was my hero—she was a five-foot tall German lady. I helped her every summer from the time I was six years old."
Inside the house, which she and Alexander built themselves, the ceiling beams are a constant reminder of what she did for 26 years, before she could become a full-time farmer herself: The beams are wooden electric poles, once used by the Chino mine, which she salvaged in the days before liability and changing corporate ownership made the company's trash heaps pretty much off-limits.
"Working at Chino, I'd sit in front of a computer all day long with a phone on my ear," she recalls. "That was never what I'd planned to do with my life."
Grunerud had acquired the Lower Mimbres farm in 1981, from a group of college buddies whose vision of a back-to-the-land communal existence had progressively paled until only one remained actually on the land. There are still four shareholders in the "No Cattle Company" that technically owns the operation, but Sharlene and Mike do the farming.
Having a place to farm and being able to afford to farm full-time are two very different things, however. "Mike and I made a five-year plan—it ended up being 10 years—for me to be able to quit at Chino. One thing after another came up. We'd sell out from the one greenhouse, so we put up another. We had a 1952 Massey-Ferguson orchard tractor, but we needed to buy another one. That Chino job paid for this house, the greenhouses, the tractor. I miss the great bunch of people I worked with over there, but that job made me ill."
She finally quit five years ago. "You know, people go on about how hard Mike and I work out here, but compared to working at the mine, it's nothing. I took a big cut in pay, but I'm much happier."
Her big straw hat resting on the table, coils of brown hair begin to creep down the back of Grunerud's neck. Behind her, her husband makes a trip to the sink for a glass of water, then traipses outside again. In a few minutes, he'll be back—farming is thirsty work.
"We're lucky," she muses. "We're all set up. We built our house ourselves. We don't have any kids to send to college."
She recalls a recent visit from a woman at an Arizona university, who was researching a thesis on women in sustainable agriculture. "Did you buy the farm as an investment?" the woman asked at one point. Grunerud's face crinkles with a smile: "Nobody buys into this sort of situation as an investment," she says, chuckling.
"Anybody who's making any kind of money," she adds, "is not spending their Saturdays selling produce."
The retrieval of the handouts means that she can proceed with a few suggested revisions to the market's guidelines—a single sheet of small print, both sides. "We have very strict guidelines," Grunerud says as copies are distributed. "They say you grow it. Some markets allow you to bring neighbors' produce. But you could say, 'Oh, these are my neighbors',' when actually you've just loaded up in Deming. I don't automatically call people liars, but. . . ."
Someone raises a hand to ask whether the guidelines allow you to sell picnic tables if you build them yourself. "Not unless you're growing the lumber," Grunerud fires back.
Less sharply, she continues, "If you have lots of cholla, you can make things out of it. Susan here makes dream catchers and walking sticks out of yucca. I invite you to be creative with crafts as long as you stay within the guidelines."
Enforcing those guidelines, Grunerud concedes, can be tough—and requires that she be tough. "You have to have a certain persona when you do it," she says. "You have to be firm. I don't like to tell people how to run their business, what they can and can't do, but that's the job."
Last year the job entailed five field trips to inspect growers' property. If somebody did claim they were growing the wood to make picnic tables, Grunerud would drive out to see the trees.
It's not just the market manager who cracks the whip, though. Last year the state environmental department inspected the market, which today leads to one of the revisions in the guidelines: "You cannot sell processed or canned vegetables—especially salsa—unless it's processed in a certified processing plant, and the nearest one is in Las Cruces," Grunerud explains. "Jams and jellies are OK because they are very low-risk. No pickles. Baked goods are OK, but no tortillas because of the risk of uneven cooking temperatures. Cheesecake must be brought in a cooler."
Someone asks about cheese. Grunerud shakes her head. "No, unless it's certified. I'd love to have 2,000 different kinds of cheeses at the market, but no."
Dried fruit and vegetables are OK. Dried herbal blends are OK. But the guidelines are officially revised to rule out canned vegetables.
Sampling at the market raises other health concerns, with another complex maze of regulations. Slices of fruit, for example, are bureaucratically deemed riskier than the same fruit whole. Go figure. The market manager can only do so much, however: "It's your responsibility not to make people sick, not mine," she tells the growers.
The other hot topic at the meeting, a perennial one, is the space crunch in the market's space at 6th and Bullard Street. Every year or two the notion comes up to move the farmers' market—including ideas about moving out of downtown entirely, which would make downtown merchants' faces pale if they heard them. MainStreet manager Frank Milan reveals that there are drawings for a market space adjacent to the visitors' center, on the fringe of downtown but still convenient to it and scenically shaded by trees along the Big Ditch. So far, though, they are just drawings.
In the meantime, the market makes such adjustments as it can—adding a $3 minimum fee, for example, to discourage vendors selling less than $75 a Saturday from taking up space. If you're a "regular" with a reserved space, Grunerud pleads, call her the previous week if you don't intend to show up some Saturday.
She also proposes a limit on the number of bakers allowed each week—three, maybe four, the right number rising and falling with the debate. "We're not a bake sale," she emphasizes. "We're a growers' market." If a grower wants to sell some baked goods on the side, she explains, that's no problem. But if she determines that the equation is the other way around—a baker selling a couple of apples just to sneak under the limit, say—the hammer will come down.
(Not that the market is against bakers per se. In fact, one of its entrepreneurial success stories is that of Diane Barrett, who started selling baked goods at the Silver City Farmers' Market and went on to open the acclaimed Diane's Restaurant in 1996.)
The issue, simply, is finding room for everybody who wants to sell on Saturday mornings. "There's no problem early in the year, when there's a lot of nursery stock," Grunerud goes on. "Some people don't bother, and we won't see them until June. By July, though, it begins to fill up."
In Europe, she notes, the annual arrival of a crop is feted. But this requires some discipline, a willingness to wait: "If everyone has already had their fill of asparagus when the local stuff comes in, then the excitement, along with the willingness to pay the higher cost of seriously perfect food, has gone. A commodity has taken the place of culture."
Waiting for what's in season, adds Grant of the state association, tends to be a healthier way to eat. It's also more economical.
So, depending on where exactly in New Mexico you live, spring means spinach, peas, salad greens, radishes, fresh herbs, beets. Summer is the season for sweet corn, tomatoes, zucchini, green chile, snap beans, peaches, melons, cucumbers, raspberries, garlic, fingerling potatoes. And autumn is a delicious riot of apples, pears, pumpkins, winter squash, red chiles, sweet potatoes and more.
If you're willing to wait, the farmers in farmers' markets can connect your dinner table to someone who's grown your food right here in the same county, someone you can actually meet and exchange pleasantries with on a Saturday morning. "Being able to realize the connection of the farmer to the food on my table is also necessary for a market to be good," Madison writes. "Farming is hard and has, for too long, been an undervalued endeavor in this country. Farmers' markets have been crucial in turning value systems around."
Grant says, "Our culture doesn't do much to remind us of the fact that we're earthlings. Farmers' markets create a place where people can connect on that level."
The average distance that most supermarket food travels to get to your plate is 1,500 miles. The typical farmer now gets less than 10 cents out of every retail food dollar spent at the megamart, supermarket or hypermarket. But that tomato you buy at the farmers' market has traveled less than a hundred miles, and the farmer or gardener who grew it gets 96 cents of your dollar.
Farmers' markets can also be potent weapons against hunger. In New Mexico, participants in the Women, Infants and Children's (WIC) program at nutritional risk can get special vouchers redeemable for fruits, vegetables and herbs at farmers' markets. Silver City's market saw the highest WIC redemption rate last year in a decade, with 68.3 percent of these vouchers used (compared to a statewide average of 55.1 percent), for $2,708 worth of fresh produce.
Locally grown food also helps preserve the genetic diversity of crops, while of course serving as a bastion against genetically modified foods.
To the extent that farmers' markets tend to retain agricultural land and fend off urban sprawl, they even help balance government budgets. For every dollar in taxes raised from residential land, governments spend $1.17 in services. But for every dollar collected from agricultural acreage, governments shell out only 34 cents.
Nationwide as in New Mexico, according to Grant of the farmers' marketing association, even as farmers' markets are booming and people are trying to eat healthier, the number of farmers keeps declining. "It's a dilemma—how do you recruit people into farming? They're either dying or retiring or can't make any money so they go into something else," Grant says. "I think about five years ago I was saying that the average age of farmers in America was 62.
"Generally speaking," Grant goes on, "people don't want to work that hard any more. Farming isn't for wimps. You have to spend a lot of time outside, and it can be physically uncomfortable. It means not being able to sit next to the water cooler in an air-conditioned office."
As the number of farmers dwindles, so does the supply of farm land, disappearing into the insatiable maw of urbanization. Grunerud says, "Casas Adobe over there, a subdivision, used to be all alfalfa fields. The Lower Mimbres has mostly escaped, but the Upper Mimbres is just getting chopped up. There's one acreage I see that's for sale where a rancher with a bulldozer has already put in roads where he thinks the houses should be."
The Arenas Valley, where the Barrazas still farm, "15 years ago it used to be a huge agricultural area," Grunerud says. "Now they're building all over it."
The picture's not entirely gloomy, though, thanks in part to the continuing spread and popularity of farmers' markets. Says Grant, "People are getting into farming, even if not as quickly as we might wish. I think in the next 10-15 years we'll come up with effective ways to keep farmers' markets alive—because, after all, you can't have them without farmers."
"We couldn't do this without the farmers' market," Grunerud says, waving a hand to indicate the greenhouses, the nursery stock, the acreage. "We can't sell to Albertson's or Wal-Mart, not with the quantities we produce. Their buyers are in some other state. We can't even talk to them.
"It's the farmers' market that makes it possible for us to have this life."
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.