Lee Einer

Food is a very local affair throughout much of the world. Many of our most valued foodstuffs are what we might call “foods of place,” unique to specific locales.

Some have gone global.

Parmesan cheese? From the Italian city of Parma, as is Parma ham. Port wine? Shipped from Oporto, Portugal. Kobe beef? It only comes from Japan’s Hyogo prefecture. The litany of great foods from specific locales is virtually endless. Some are available worldwide, but there are many others you will not get to enjoy unless you travel to where they are produced.

In some cases, such foods are limited to certain locales due to the local climate, which yields just the right combinations of seasonal heat and humidity. In others, it may be geographical features such as caves, which produce the right conditions for a perfect cheese, or meadowlands just right for grazing heirloom pigs on acorns. Sometimes, it is locally grown fruits, vegetables or meats that make the difference. Some times it is a matter of traditional, artisan methods of preparation.

We used to have many such incredible local delicacies here in the U.S. Some persist, though many more are things of memory, washed away by a tidal wave of generic, uniformly ho-hum mass-produced agribusiness meats and produce.

It is time to bring local foods back.

This is one of rural New Mexico’s strengths. Due in part to our strong traditions and relative isolation, we still have “chiles of place,” wonderful peppers traditionally grown in one small area and nowhere else, like the Isleta Pueblo chile and the Chimayo chile. We have heirloom corns, wonderful squash, foraged greens such as verdolaga and quelites, local fruits such as native plums and chokecherries. And we have some unique regional food specialties that have developed out of these ingredients.

Our local, heirloom crops and our local cuisines are our capital – part of the riches of the people of New Mexico. And they provide a sorely needed opportunity for sustainable economic development.

Agriculture in this area has declined by nearly half over a period of twenty years. That’s not good. Agricultural decline not only causes economic decline, but also an entire cascade of less obvious consequences. Nutritional health among area residents is negatively impacted as local diet becomes skewed toward fast foods and the prepared food items peddled in supermarkets. Traditional foods are culturally significant, and as they fade from the everyday diet there can be a corresponding loss of cultural identity. As we lose our farms, water rights, based on beneficial use, also begin to slip through our fingers to be absorbed by subdivisions in large urban centers downstream.

We need to reinvigorate our local agriculture, for our community’s economic, nutritional and cultural health. But how to do it?

Basic biomimicry and permaculture wisdom provide the key.

We know from the study of ecology that the more densely interconnected the web of life is within a system, the more resilient that system becomes. In other words, it’s not strength through numbers as the cliché would have it, so much as strength through interrelationship. Similarly, a big part of good permaculture design is insuring that the output of any given element is connected to become an input for some other element within the system, producing maximum yields with minimum inputs and minimum waste.

It’s all about connections.

Local agriculture is struggling in large part because the food distribution mechanisms on which consumers depend such as restaurants, supermarkets, and school cafeterias, aren’t connecting us with local growers. Instead, they’re connecting us with a big agribusiness food chain that trucks produce an average of 1,500 miles from where it is grown. So it is very important for us to fix that. We need to find ways to reestablish our connection with local farmers and ranchers, both for their sakes and ours.

There are a variety of strategies. Farm to School is a brilliant program to connect school cafeterias and local farmers. Farmers’ markets help connect local farmers and ranchers directly with retail consumers. And Farm to Restaurant programs connect local farmers with local restaurants and promote those restaurants that support local farmers and ranchers.

Under the auspices of Main Street de Las Vegas, I have been spearheading a farm to restaurant project, which connects local farmers and ranchers with Las Vegas, NM restaurants. The program has immediate benefits in that local agriculture is encouraged and local restaurants are promoted, but one of the long-term goals is to put this wonderful little city of ours on the map for our local cuisine. We are looking to make Las Vegas a food destination, using the products of our local, sustainable agriculture.

Because this endeavor supports sustainable local agriculture, increases food sovereignty and helps wean us from petrochemical-intensive agribusiness, I like to think of it as culinary ecotourism.

Local farmers and ranchers are supporting the project enthusiastically. Two restaurants have already been accepted into the project, committing to purchase from local food producers when possible. El Fidel Restaurant, in Las Vegas’ El Fidel Hotel, has been buying from local farmers for some time. The restaurant’s owners and chefs, Miguel Velasquez and Juan Ortiz, have a passion for cooking from scratch with fresh, local ingredients and are looking to expand their seasonal menu through the Farm to Restaurant project.

The other, The Landmark Grill, is in the Plaza Hotel on Las Vegas’ old town plaza. The Landmark Grill and its adjoining saloon, Byron T’s, have been fixtures in the community for years, but the owners have enthusiastically embraced the idea of preparing and serving local ingredients bought from local farmers to support our local economy. Armand Saiia, a local farmer and chef, is working with the Grill’s chef, Adam Lucero, to create a fresh new menu based on local ingredients.

Las Vegas is already a food service hub for our region. A renaissance of fresh, local food builds on this strength, and integrates perfectly with the area’s many ecotourism destinations; What better way to end a day of hiking El Porvenir, birdwatching at Las Vegas National Wildlife refuge, or simply luxuriating in Montezuma’s hot springs than by dining on a gourmet meal prepared from sustainably grown, fresh, local ingredients?

Credit where credit is due: This is not an original concept. Our Farm to Restaurant project is modeled after the very successful program operated by the Santa Fe Alliance. Of course, all really good designs are site-specific, so we are taking inspiration from Santa Fe’s program where it seems to fit our community, and working the rest out as we go, with the input of our local farmers and chefs.

Lee Einer is a Las Vegas, NM permaculturist, and coordinator of Las Vegas NM’s Farm to Restaurant Project. He can be e-mailed at einerlee@yahoo.com.