Canyon Road Arts

Santa Fe’s farm-to-table movement

Santa Fe is a leader in the national trend of keeping our food local and sustainable

Gary Ernest Smith Natural Beauty Oil on Linen 24 x 36
Gary Ernest Smith, Natural Beauty, oil on linen, 24″ x 36″

Nobody would mistake New Mexico for Iowa. In our mountainous and arid environment, “amber waves of grain” do not readily spring to mind.

Nevertheless, farming has been crucial to New Mexico’s inhabitants for 3000 years. Prehistoric hunter/gatherers in what is now southern New Mexico began augmenting their diets with domesticated corn, beans, and squash about 1000 BCE.

Agriculture slowly spread north and by 1000 CE, the Anasazi people of the Four Corners depended heavily on their crops for survival.

In fact, many archaeologists believe that it was sustained drought and resulting crop failure that caused the Anasazi to abandon their homeland in favor of the wetter mountain valleys of the Rio Grande drainage.

Dominik Modlinski On the Way to Denali
Dominik Modlinski, On the Way to Denali, oil on board, 11″ x 14″

Arrival of the Spanish in 1598 brought new crops to the Anasazi’s descendents, the Pueblo peoples of Northern New Mexico.

Wheat, barley, lettuce, cabbage, peas, chile, onions, carrots, turnips, garlic, radishes, cucumbers and a variety of herbs and tree fruits arrived with the settlers.

The newcomers’ sheep, goats, and cattle also provided dairy and meat. The new foods were welcomed by the Pueblos and were a comfort to the Spanish, but the diets of both still largely depended on corn and beans.

Veryl Goodnight Edge of Fall
Veryl Goodnight, Edge of Fall, oil on canvas, 10″ x 12″

We forget now, but in those early days of settlement-and for the next 300 years — virtually everyone was a farmer.

The New Mexico colony was so remote that its inhabitants had to produce all of their own food. Subsistence farming made up almost the entire economy.

Nearly the same was true “back east” in the United States where, in 1790, 90% of the workforce was engaged in farming. That percentage has decreased steadily ever since.

By 1880 less than half the US labor force worked on farms and, today, just over 1% of Americans are farmers. Because of its isolation and traditional culture, New Mexico held onto its farming economy longer than the US overall.

Today, however, farmers in New Mexico match the national average at 1.2% of the workforce.

Ross Stefan (1934-1999) Old Santa Cruz, Sonora, Mexico
Ross Stefan (1934-1999), Old Santa Cruz, Sonora, Mexico,
circa 1975, oil on linen 16″ x 22″

Most Americans now have no contact with farming or food processing, and it long has been observed that we are deeply estranged from the sources of our food.

And that separation gives rise to a variety of negative consequences from tasteless tomatoes to unhealthy diets to dependence on fossil fuels to transport everything we eat.

Over the past few decades, the lack of fresh, quality food, concern over pesticides and unsustainable farming practices, and now the “obesity epidemic” have given rise to a rapidly growing local food movement nationwide.

Jan Mapes Hey Up There
Jan Mapes, Hey Up There oil on canvas, 12″ x 12″

The goal of local food advocates is not only to eliminate middle-men from the food supply chain, but also to build more self-reliant local food economies.

The movement seeks to enhance the economy, environment, and personal health of a particular place by keeping food production, processing, and distribution locally based.

Joe Beeler (1931-2006) Fording the River Oil on Canvas 24 x 36
Joe Beeler (1931-2006) Fording the River, oil on canvas, 24″ x 36″

Northern New Mexico is well positioned to benefit from the local food movement, in part because our topography defies large-scale farming and the far-flung corporate distribution model that supports it. In 2002, 43% of New Mexico farms were less than 50 acres in size.

The economics of such small farms often encourages the farmers to keep food processing and distribution focused in their home territory. Many farmers in our region have responded by producing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, meats, and cheeses for sale at farmers markets, area restaurants, and local grocery stores and co-ops.

More than a dozen northern New Mexico farms also participate in Community Supported Agriculture. Local families purchase memberships in these “CSA” farms and in return, they receive the fresh produce as it becomes available throughout the season.

Deborah Copenhaver-Fellows, NSS In Sight of the Ranch House
Deborah Copenhaver-Fellows, NSS, In Sight of the Ranch House,
bronze, edition of 35, 24.5″ x 39″ x 11.5″

Though willing farmers and consumers are the essential players in the local food movement, a number of businesses and institutions in Santa Fe have eagerly taken up the cause of locally grown food. The most visible and accessible of these (especially to visitors) are restaurants.

Many of Santa Fe’s best chefs are practitioners of Modern American Cuisine, defined as high quality, fresh, locally-produced, in-season foods prepared with classic European and Asian cooking techniques. (Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, was an early champion of this philosophy of cooking which arose from Fusion and California Cuisine in the 1970s and 1980s.)

These chefs buy directly from area farmers, and a few actually grow some of their own produce. The emphasis on in-season products means their menus change frequently and their dishes are often pared down to focus on the distinctive and essential flavors of the fresh, local ingredients. (See the list of Santa Fe’s New American restaurants on pages 46-48.)

Mark Bowles Vanishing Ridge Acrylic on Canvas 60 x 60
Mark Bowles, Vanishing Ridge, acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 60″

Top chefs may be leading the way in their use of local ingredients, but restaurants of every stripe can benefit from the fresh foods provided by local farmers.

The Santa Fe Alliance, a non-profit that supports locally-owned small businesses, is building a Farm to Restaurant program which delivers products from almost 50 local farms to 30 local restaurants, caterers and grocers.

The program also has a marketing campaign to promote participating restaurants and heighten public awareness of the advantages of local food.

Greg Campbell Chinese Pistache 8.75 x 10.25 Turned Wooden Bowl
Greg Campbell, Chinese Pistache,
8.75″ x 10.25″, turned wooden bowl

For those who want to do their own cooking with local ingredients, Santa Fe has two excellent sources. La Montanita Co-op stocks more than 1100 local products from about 400 local producers, making up 20% of its total purchases and sales.

La Montanita also works to create wholesale markets, provides product pick-up and distribution, and offers refrigerated storage for local farmers and producers.

James Woodside Crazy Horse
James Woodside, Crazy Horse, oil on panel, 20″ x 20″

The Santa Fe Farmers Market not only specializes in local food but also allows home chefs to actually meet the people who grew their food. Widely cited as one of the best and most progressive markets in the country, it also has some of the most rigorous standards for what can be sold. Unlike most markets in the US, the Santa Fe Farmers Market guarantees that all vegetables, fruits, and nursery plants are locally grown by the people selling them.

The same is true for at least 80% of the ingredients and materials used to make the processed foods and craft items sold there. No reselling is permitted, and all of the 100 vendor / producers at the market live in the fifteen counties of north-central New Mexico.

W. Jason Situ Colorado’s Old Barn
W. Jason Situ, Colorado’s Old Barn, oil on canvas panel, 8″ x 10″

Foodies in Santa Fe who love to both cook and dine out have two magazines to help them navigate the local food scene, Edible Santa Fe and Local Flavor. Both magazines are distributed free through area merchants and paper boxes, and both offer restaurant reviews, news of local chefs and food growers, and thoughtful articles on all aspects of the local food movement.

James Woodside One Window
James Woodside, One Window, oil on panel, 18″ x 18″

Two other organizations in Santa Fe promote the local food movement through advocacy, marketing and education programs.

The non-profit Farm to Table New Mexico, brings its Farm to School program into area classrooms with nutrition lessons, cooking classes, school gardens, farm visits, farmers in the classroom, and compost/recycling lessons. Most notably, Farm to Table purchases fresh foods for use in school cafeterias. The organization also convenes the New Mexico Food and Agricultural Policy Council to advocate for local food systems among state and local policymakers, and its Southwest Marketing Network helps local farmers learn best marketing practices for their products.

A recent start-up, Home Grown New Mexico, is another non-profit promoting “locavorism” through educational events, and is attempting to organize a local food event in Santa Fe in late summer, 2011.

Gary Ernest Smith New Wheat Oil on Canvas 16 x 24
Gary Ernest Smith, New Wheat, oil on canvas, 16″ x 24″

Many visitors to Santa Fe report that the excellent dining opportunities are a major reason for visiting.

Santa Fe is a foodie’s paradise, especially for those who wish to sample our local products. In fact, Sperlings Best Places puts Santa Fe in the top ten foodie cities in the nation, based mostly on the amount of locally grown, processed, and prepared food. Enjoy eating your way through Santa Fe, and don’t be afraid to ask where the food came from. You might get to meet a farmer.

New American Restaurants

Jerry Jordan Autumn So Golden Oil 17 x 17 Courtesy Manitou Galleries
Jerry Jordan, Autumn So Golden, oil, 17″ x 17″
Courtesy Manitou Galleries

Restaurants that regularly feature local ingredients


This article was excerpted from Canyon Road Arts: The Complete Visitors Guide to Arts, Dining and Santa Fe Lifestyle, Vol 6, 2011-2012, pages 42-49. Canyon Road Arts is published by Medicine Man Gallery. All rights reserved.
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