Juan Estévan Arellano
Today, local food is a rave. Everywhere you go, everyone is promoting local food. There are local food festivals all over, from Albuquerque to Santa Fe to Taos and even in small towns throughout the Río Arriba bioregion. Farmers who produce for local farmers’ markets are given awards for being a “Local Hero.”
How times have changed. Not too long ago, everything consumed was local food. To people in the Hispano communities, local food—mostly grown within the family or hamlet—has been a way of life. Local food often was delivered to the doorsteps of the consumer. This started with the Chile Line railroad in the 1880s that used to take chile from Embudo Station to Antonito, Colo. and beyond.
Growing up in the Embudo Valley, first in Cañoncito and later in La Junta, all we ate was local because that’s all we could afford. Even into the 1960s and ’70s, pickup trucks loaded with chile, apples, peaches and an assortment of vegetables made their way from the Española Valley to those places that didn’t grow the crops grown at lower altitudes. Those from the Embudo Valley and Velarde usually went to Taos and other towns along the Río Grande all the way to the San Luís Valley in southern Colorado. Sometimes, those from Española, Hernández and Chamita would travel to Gallina, Tierra Amarilla, Chama and surrounding communities. Those from Chimayó would go to Truchas, Peñasco and the Mora Valley with their produce. On their way back, they would bring calabazas, maduras, dried peas, beans—pinto and bolita—cabbage, potatoes, chicos and meat, from goats to sheep to venison.
At that time, most of the goods were bartered or, as it was called in Spanish, cambalache. Relatively little was bought in the stores, which were usually small and family-owned. Even into the ’60s there were mercantile stores in Española and San Juan Pueblo (Ohkay Owingeh). The mercantile stores in Ranchos de Taos, Pecos, Las Vegas and Peñasco (still in existence) belonged to immigrants from Lebanon.
Then, after the inundation of industrially processed food, fast-food establishments and big-box supermarkets, the coin flipped. In the mid-’90s, with the introduction of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), people started to become more conscious of what they ate. But the nomenclature changed completely. Whereas local food had meant cheap prices, today it often means food for people who can afford it. A bushel of local chile—20 lbs. or even more—sold for $4 at most; today, it’s as high as $50. Most local people won’t pay that much for chile, especially if you put up four to eight bushels. The same for apples, which usually sold for $2.50 to $3 a bushel; today, they go for up to $40 or $50 for a 40-lb. box.
Even the way our food is prepared has changed. I was listening to the Today Show recently, and a famous chef was preparing red chile with turkey and tomatoes. It didn’t look at all like the chile I am used to eating. It looked more like a stew. Then, she also made what she called a “white chile” with what she called “Mexican tomatoes” or tomatillos and a lot of other vegetables. She also made vegetarian chile. For me, real chile has to be made with pork, if it’s red chile, or carne adovada, or beef, if it’s a green chile stew. No hamburger meat, please, in my chile.
But the consumer has to be careful when buying local. Be sure the farmers you buy from know when to pick their produce at its prime. Last year at the Dixon Farmers’ Market, I bought some fresh corn because I fell for the hype that it was locally grown heritage corn. When we got home and cooked the corn to eat on the cob, we couldn’t eat it. It was way past its prime; trying to eat it was more like trying to eat chewing gum. The mistake I made was that I knew the seller, and, since she used the moniker “local heritage,” I believed it, although she was a relative newcomer to growing food.
I don’t understand why people who want to grow organic produce now have to fill out tons of paperwork and pay the government to get certified to prove that they are indeed organic; whereas, those who use poisons or pesticides don’t have to fill out any paperwork, and they can buy pesticides anywhere without any documentation. That’s why local food that is organic is so expensive, while pesticide-grown food is cheaper. It doesn’t make sense, and it seems that it is a ploy to charge more for good food, which in the past was cheaper and more accessible to the poor than today’s organic food, which caters to those with a thicker wallet.
How times have changed. “A que tiempos ¡Señor don Simon!”
EDITOR’S NOTE: It is with great sadness we learned, as this edition of Green Fire Times was about to go to press, that Juan Estévan Arellano had passed away. Arellano has been a semi-regular contributor to GFT. We will publish a tribute to him in February. In 2013, the New Mexico Community Foundation named Arellano one of 10 Luminarias, a distinction awarded to people around the state who make a profound difference in their communities. Arellano is the author of Ancient Agriculture: Roots and Application of Sustainable Farming. He lived in Embudo, NM with his wife Elena.
In his new book Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water, Juan Estévan Arellano explores the ways people use water in dry places around the world. Touching on the Middle East, Europe, México and South America before circling back to New Mexico, Arellano makes a case for preserving the acequia irrigation system and calls for a future that respects the ecological limitations of the land. www.unmpress.com