When I started my journey with the Santa Fe Alliance in 2006 it didn’t occur to me that my family background would have such a big influence on my daily work. I have a Master’s Degree in Theatre Arts, not a background in economic development. Our “new economy” experts have told me that my lack of economic development experience means I have nothing to unlearn when it comes to the work I do. When the Santa Fe Alliance began to build out a project to localize food and energy economies for greater community wealth I puzzled over the questions “how did I get here?” and “what is it in me that leads me to move this work forward in my community?” After many conversations with local farmers, business owners and construction laborers, it hit me like a hammer . . . Local is where I come from.
My family is Italian. I’m actually first generation Canadian; both of my parents were immigrants from Italy whose families arrived in Canada in the 1950s to start anew. They brought with them the traditional farming, labor and business skills developed in the Old Country. All my uncles were developers in Northern Ontario, and their sons became owners of construction businesses – roofers, framers, plumbers, electricians – every one of them. My uncles and cousins could build a house from the concrete foundation to the roof without ever hiring a single outside person. But they have hired hundreds of employees between them; they each have owned successful businesses, building many, many houses, condos, and business parks across Ontario. My father was a water-well driller who taught us that without fresh water, you have nothing, and that to conserve water was to save money, so we had that covered too. My mother was his business manager for many years. I grew up in my father’s well-drilling office, answering service calls. My sister became his personal secretary, learning how to type more than 60 words a minute at the age of 10. In the early 1980s my father had a crazy notion that solar panels would be the answer to his hot water prayers; being the only male in a household of females, he was tired of running out of hot water. In the dead of winter he installed the biggest, ugliest solar panels I have ever seen on the peaked roof of our house. We were mocked as a family and my father was called slightly crazy for thinking that the Canadian sun (what sun?) would ever supply enough energy to power our hot water consumption. But my dad outwitted them all and soon the neighbors wanted solar panels, too. In the late 1980s my father sold his well-drilling business to become a plumber and started installing solar hot water and geothermal systems. Now in his 70’s, he is learning all the new technologies of solar installation, and my 19-year-old nephew is an Electrician Apprentice. We are family business. It’s in my blood.
My family also owned farms or had subsistence farms that could feed the whole town. Both of my grandparents moved into their new Canadian homes in the suburbs and quickly rototilled the front and back yards to make way for as many fruit trees and vegetables as they could plant in a season. It was nothing for my grandmother to pluck a chicken in the back yard for the weekend’s dinner. My young cousins and I spent hours upon hours playing hide and seek in the long rows of green beans and corn stalks every summer. Apple and cherry trees lined my front yard and grape vines provided the season’s family vintage. And in the fall my entire family picked, harvested, cleaned, pitted, packed, froze, baked and cooked – and made barrels and barrels of wine. Kids, aunts, uncles, grandparents and extended family relatives were all there for the harvest. My grandmother was an expert at making vats of tomato sauce to carry us through the winter. And she was a master at feeding people, of course; she was the Italian Matriarch. It was common for my grandmother to feed the entire neighborhood, not just her own family. I have strong memories of my uncles, cousins and their work crews eating at long picnic tables set up on job sites, digging into bowls of freshly picked salad and vegetables, grilled meat from my uncle’s cattle, and drinking milk straight out of the barn. My aunts were always right there to refill their dishes before the men could protest that they were too full.
Extended family was involved too. This might be a good time to tell you that I have hundreds of relatives, and they all owned businesses as well. I often joke that in our family we had the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, along with the plumber, the roofer, the clothes tailor, the accountant, the lawyer, the restaurant owner, the janitor and the lawyer. You get the idea.
When the Santa Fe Alliance’s Farm to Restaurant Pilot Distribution Project launched its first direct delivery to restaurants on July 16, I got a little choked up. The Farm to Restaurant Project started as a marketing campaign in 2005 to promote the locally owned restaurants in our membership that were committed to using regional items on their menus. Now, five years and a lot of sweat equity later, it’s a true business model that is serving restaurants directly with the products they need from our New Mexico farmers. Finally the circle of my journey feels complete. The question of “how I got here, doing local economic development work after 10 years of working in the arts” is no longer a mystery to me. I come from a world where buying from your neighbors meant literally buying from your family, where knowing that your food was from a farm meant that it came from a cousin’s farm and was butchered by an uncle, where owning a local business meant supporting the entire community. That’s where I come from and this is what “local” means to me.
Vicki Pozzebon is the Executive Director of the Santa Fe Alliance, a non profit organization working toward building a local living economy through community, local ownership and advocacy. Visit www.santafealliance.com for more information.