When I was a child of about seven years old, I would go with my mom to the small villages of Ojo Sarco and Penasco, walking from house to house to sell our wares. We’d have buckets of green chiles for fifty cents (una bota de diez), pure lard, cucumbers, squash and potatoes; Dad would sell a 50-pound sack of potatoes for two dollars.  He’d always make sure that we shook the sack and put in as many papas as the sack could carry—he didn’t worry about the actual weight.

Our family spent several days at a time on road trips, trading and selling our vegetables throughout northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. I remember picking up apples in Valerade, making our way to Taos and San Luis for the fiestas and setting up under the trees on the main road. From there, we would go to Fort Garlen and set up there for a day or two before making our way to Alamosa to pick up seed potatoes. Then we’d head down to La Jara to trade apples and green chiles for a couple of new piglets. Dad would go down to El Paso to meet the trains and bring bananas and oranges, which he would sell on the roadside or to the school systems in Espanola and other towns.

Later, in the 60’s and 70’s, our mom would go and set up at the pond in front of the courthouse to sell corn and chiles. We’d have to stop at the security gate and be cleared by armed guards before we could pass and sell our wares. At the end of the afternoon, we would go from house to house selling whatever produce had not sold at the farmers’ market, a practice that was permitted back in the day. If we finished early, we would stop at the Los Alamos dump and salvage all sorts of cool stuff. We still have bombshells from the dump site, used as irrigation pipes. 

In the 80’s and 90’s, new trends emerged: a farmers’ market in Santa Fe and a movement toward local sales and organics. As late as the mid-80’s, though, it was still possible to set up just about anywhere selling corn, chiles and melons. One day, I heard there was a farmers’ market in Santa Fe at the San Busco market center, so I showed up and was allowed to sell my red chiles and a few other products. Sales were slow, and one of the only sales I had was to a fellow vendor, who bought a bushel of red chiles for twelve dollars. 

Life was simpler back in those days. Over the last two decades there has been a large national movement toward local and organically grown products for several reasons, and important ones: agricultural choices effect the environment, economy, food safety, food security, child nutrition and much more. The Obama administration and USDA announced this spring that they want to support a more local and regional food system by helping to support 100,000 new small farmers in the next ten years, building a more food-secure nation. The USDA has started to fund projects for development and training of new farmers, as well as pilot projects for infrastructure through several different agencies.

In New Mexico, this new interest brings new pressures and demand. The amount of land and water that can be used for farming and grazing in New Mexico is limited, and there is no agreement as to how demands will be met. A recent study in New Mexico conducted by Cornell University is looking at models for changing our diets to fit the carrying capacity of the region. Other people are looking at season extension or year-round production in cold frames or greenhouses. All this takes place in the context of a food system that has many complexities of region, climate, culture and population.

There is broad agreement on the need to develop more and different markets for farmers and ranchers to sell their products, but none are as simple, open or free as as the system I grew up with. One of the more profitable venues for the last ten years has been the farmers’ market. There has been an increase in the number of markets and direct sales, where the middle man is cut out of the food chain, allowing producers to put more money in their own pockets. In recent years (several academic studies later) it has been discovered that other markets have to be developed to truly support a local economy. There are other venues, for example, that are being developed in New Mexico. A farm-to-restaurant program in Santa Fe is in its second year. The local co-ops have also developed a distribution model for local producers to help sell their products. 

But no one seems to be examining the strengths of the old ways of doing things. The development of new markets tend to be most accessible to a more aggressive marketer; they are geared toward the capitalist farmer. Though they can boost the local farm economy in some ways, they couldn’t be more different from the traditional bartering economy, with its respect for culture and land-based people. The new ways of local farming and marketing may have their attractions, but they are so far away from the wholseome way I grew up.

I can’t help but wonder if the practices and policies being put in place today are driving out the most traditional farmers and ranchers, small-scale agricultural families like the one I grew up in. I would like to see a win-win scenario for all farmers. We need policies that embrace and encourage the participation of both traditional and new farmers in markets, distribution, access and land use. Why can’t we put a system in place that honors and learns from the simpler days of marketing your wares?