Heirloom Cultivars

Place of Good Seeds: Heirloom Crops Enrich the Region

Posted

Long before farmers’ markets were hip, long before artisanal foods became big business, long before the local foods movement, the people of Northern New Mexico were growing their own food. 

New Mexico has a long agricultural tradition, dating back millennia. For thousands of years, local Pueblo tribes each grew their own variants of the “three sisters” — corn, beans and squash — as well as other crops. When the Spanish arrived in the late 1500s, they found a thriving agriculture here and the cultivation of crops well adapted to our particular climate.

Europeans who arrived in the region from the 1500s through the 1800s brought their own food varieties with them. In many cases, Old World and New World crops mingled in the rectory gardens of priests and in bigger fields of staple food plants.

Although many of those crops have been lost to time, New Mexico has a thriving tradition of seed saving, and many farmers and families in Northern New Mexico retain seeds handed down through generations. New Mexico has many landrace, or heirloom, vegetables and fruits — varieties that have been growing in our soil for hundreds if not thousands of years and that are perfectly suited to our high-altitude, mountainous, arid environment. These seeds contain a unique genetic diversity that sustained Pueblo people for thousands of years, and later the Spanish, before our modern food system came along, often wiping out centuries of rare food stocks.

When talking about heirloom vegetables, the folks who sell seeds are focused on the stories that go with them — someone’s great-great-grandmother grew this bean for baked beans; someone’s immigrant uncle brought this tomato from Russia. These stories tie us to our ancestors, but in New Mexico, our local varieties are also important in a genetic sense. Heirloom seeds contain the genetics of thousands of years of agricultural selection. They contain genes that allow plants to survive cold nights, intense sunshine, short growing seasons and periods of no rain.

Some of New Mexico’s specialty crops have become well-known, while others remain relatively obscure — unless you know where to look for them. Here are a few.

Garlic

The Spanish came to this area in the 1600s and settled near the places where water flowed, creating the state’s early acequia systems. They brought seeds for growing crops, including garlic, whose wild progenitor originated in the Caucasus Mountains of Eurasia. These days you can find garlic that has “gone wild” all over the state — by old ditch banks, near old farmsteads, along roadsides. We have made a habit of gathering these wild garlics and domesticating them in our fields. 

About 15 years ago, our postmistress in Chamisal, Noami Atencio, told us about garlic that had been growing down by Chamisal Creek since her grandfather was a boy. When we went to look, we found an enormous patch of what appeared to be grass. When we walked on it, however, crushing it, the aroma made it obvious that this “grass” was actually garlic. It had been growing and spreading there for hundreds of years. We dug some teeny bulbs, the size of grapes, and planted the cloves. Within three years, we had bulbs nearly 3 inches wide.

Based on conversations with other local growers, we believe that the garlic we now call Chamisal Wild came to New Mexico with early Spanish settlers. A rocambole type, Chamisal Wild is spicy hot and super pungent, and goes perfectly with chile. We sell it at the Santa Fe Farmers Market at our Boxcar Farm stand.

Squash

Several local squash varieties originated in New Mexico. In particular, a local calabaza known by various names has been grown in the state’s more mountainous regions for untold centuries. When we started our farm in the mountains of Taos County 15 years ago, one of the first things we grew was this squash. Juliet Garcia, a Chamisal gardener whose family has grown the squash for centuries, calls it calavaza nativa. Its other names are calavaza and, in southern Colorado, colaté. 

Our farm received gifts of seeds from neighbors whose families had grown this squash for centuries: Natalie Rodriguez Lopez, Tranquilino Martinez, Juliet Garcia and others. The mountain clans of Northern New Mexico eat it in its early phases as summer squash, called calavacitas (“little squash”). But some fruits are left on the vine until after frost, maturing into winter squash with an incredibly long storage potential. We have seen squash that are still good to eat a year after harvest. The flesh is variable but is often deep orange and sweet, like a Hubbard. This squash is fast to set fruit and fast to grow big, doesn’t mind cold nights and needs only minimal irrigation.

Gemini Farm, run by brothers Teague and Kosma Channing at nearly 8,000 feet elevation in Las Trampas, worked with this squash for a decade, selecting what they believe is the original type. Those squash, which are shades of pinkish-orange and blue-green, can be found at the Santa Fe Farmers Market in the autumn at several farm stands, including Jubilee Farm, which is run by a former Gemini Farm member, Brett Ellison; our own stand; and Loretta Sandoval’s stand. The Fresquez family from Monte Vista Organic Farm also grows this squash in the mountains near Peñasco.

Chile

New Mexico may be the only state in the union with a government-sanctioned “state question” — “Red or green?” That is: Which color chile do you prefer? (State answer: “Christmas,” meaning both together.) And yes it’s spelled “chile” here. Not “chili.” Not “chilli.” 

Nearly every village in Northern New Mexico has its own strain of chile, and nearly every local farmer over the centuries has saved chile seeds, selecting for the type of heat, flesh, earliness and other preferred qualities. Matt Romero grows Alcalde Improved, a hot chile with nice thick flesh. Loretta Sandoval of Zulu’s Petals, one of the more knowledgeable seed savers in the region, grows her Dixon-area landrace Canoncito chile, which has an incredibly rich flavor. Both growers sell at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. Richard Bernard of Nambe, who brokers seed for the heirloom seed company Baker Creek, prefers a variety grown by the family of Joe Martinez in a small village north of Española. Baker Creek sells it under the village’s name: Estaceno.

Chiles from Northern New Mexico are hardy,” Bernard says. “They are adapted to growing in cold soil, they produce early and they are very branched instead of upright. The pods are smaller, and the flavor is very unique. Everyone believes their strain is the best. But I really like the Estaceno.”

But perhaps New Mexico’s most renowned tongue tingler is grown in the little village surrounding the famous Santuario of Chimayó. 

Many vendors at the Santa Fe Farmers Market sell Chimayó chile. Crescencio “Chencho” Ochoa grows several acres of Chimayo chile. He started nearly 20 years ago, using seeds gathered around the village. He now saves his own seeds, selecting for size and flavor, and sun-dries his pods rather than oven-roasting them. This gives them a glowing orange hue instead of the traditional deep red of oven-dried chile. You can find his delicious strain at El Jardin de Chile de Chimayó in Chimayó.

You can also find Chimayó chile in season — mostly in fall and early winter — at El Potrero Trading Post near the Santuario. 

Corn, Beans

For years, Richard Bernard has been working with heirloom seed varieties of Northern New Mexico and other regions as an independent contractor and seed expert with Baker Creek and other seed companies. He travels to gardens across the Southwest and elsewhere looking for unique varieties, some of which end up for sale in the Baker Creek catalog. 

Bernard worked with our farm to sell Chamisal Wild garlic through Baker Creek and helped Pojoaque Pueblo sell its Posuwageh blue corn. The traditional tribal name Posuwageh means “place of good water.” The sale of blue corn as seed has helped revive some agricultural endeavors at Pojoaque Pueblo, Bernard says. Tribal members are now also planting several acres of Anasazi beans and other traditional crops, and selling their rare corn at the farmers’ market at the Poeh Center in Pojoaque.

The Anasazi bean has been with them a long time,” he notes. In fact, many Northern New Mexico pueblos have a long history with the speckled Anasazi, which cooks up somewhat like a pinto bean. Taos Pueblo also has a particularly lovely, but hard to find, red bean, perfect for cooking in chile.

Emigdio Ballon, a Bolivian native, has worked with Tesuque Pueblo for more than a decade to revive its historic crops of corn, beans and squash. Ballon prefers not to talk about specific crops from Tesuque but notes that the tribe is working to revive a “sustainable, self-sufficient, independent” agriculture system on lands where tribal members have been farming since the 1300s. 

We are trying to go back to our roots,” Ballon says. Many of the seeds the tribe is now growing across 75 acres of land came from the Hopi tribe. “The Hopis have been selecting these varieties for thousands of years,” Ballon notes, and now they are sharing them with other southwestern tribes.

Others

The Hopi tribe in Arizona has done one of the best jobs saving seeds over the years. You can find Hopi melons, Hopi squash and at least a dozen colors of Hopi corn, plus Hopi tobacco. Bernard says the Hopi have been very open and generous in sharing their historical seeds with Northern New Mexico pueblos that are trying to revive ancient agricultural practices. “The Hopi say that once you grow it for seven generations, it becomes yours,” he says. In other words, after seven years, the original Hopi blue corn is officially your own strain.

Dozens of other local crops, including many rare types of apples and other fruits, are specific to communities in Northern New Mexico. Most of the pueblos a bit farther south, in the warmer regions around Albuquerque, have their own varieties of melons. Isleta and Cochiti Pueblos, for instance, both grow oblong cantaloupes. 

Combing the farmers’ markets and farm stands of Northern New Mexico will almost certainly reveal other varieties of fruits and veggies specific to our area. 

A couple decades ago, Native Seeds Search in southern Arizona made a sweep to collect New Mexico seeds and now sells them in its catalog. But some local growers wonder about the wisdom of allowing New Mexico heirlooms to be commercialized. Does a seed grown in southern Arizona still have all the qualities — early ripeness and cold hardiness, for example — that it had when it was grown in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos in Northern New Mexico?

Loretta Sandoval says her seed-saving efforts are geared toward preservation — for local people who have worked so hard over the centuries to develop these varieties, rather than for companies looking to sell seeds from the area. “We are making efforts to create and maintain locally adapted seed and a sustainable system to benefit local New Mexico seed growers,” she says. 

She believes that the families that developed these varieties and protected them for centuries deserve some of the credit and profit. “I’m putting my efforts into seeds — not for me but for future generations of New Mexico farmers,” Sandoval concludes.

Kristen Davenport is a farmer, herbalist and writer living in the tiny mountain village of Llano de San Juan, at 8,200 feet elevation under the shadow of Jicarita Peak. Her family’s endeavor, Boxcar Farm, sells at the Santa Fe Farmers Market and periodically at other places around Taos and Santa Fe.

Comments