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Monsoon aids farmers, but for many, damage is done

September 4, 2018

A steady stream of customers at the Santa Fe Farmers Market strolled past stalls rich with a bounty that might not have been, had the rains not come when they did.

Red ristras hung from booth awnings, and the spicy, sweet smell of charring green chiles wafted through the thick, late-summer air. Farmers hawked shishito peppers, tomatoes, cherries and apples. Sunflowers, those harbingers of cooler weather in Northern New Mexico, flaunted their bright yellow blooms.

The monsoon that brought a historic flood and, at least in Santa Fe, a steady stream of summer storms, quenched the thirst of at least some farmers’ drought-stricken fields. Still, other farmers continue to struggle thanks to a somewhat spotty rainy season.

“It looks really abundant right now,” said Kierstan Pickens, executive director of the Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute, the market’s fundraising sister organization. “Customers are like, ‘Oh, you must be doing better because it’s monsoon season now.’ … But some people are still struggling and don’t have access to water.”

And for most, the damage already had been done. This year’s haul is smaller. For some, next year’s will suffer, too.

Back in June, the dearth of rain kept bean and chile farmer Jesus Guzman up at night.

Guzman, a 30-year farmers market veteran who has seen his share of dry years, farms 13 acres near Nambé. He planted only half his land this year. He was nearly out of water when the monsoon rains arrived in mid-July.

“So far, so good,” he said from his booth last Tuesday as customers stopped by to browse his selection of dried beans, chokecherries, roasted green and dried red chile. “I think we’re going to be able to at least harvest some of the stuff — probably not in the same volume, but it’s looking a lot better than it was then.”

Yield, he said, is down about 40 percent, and for a farmer whose bread and butter is dried goods, that bodes poorly for next year.

Guzman said he’s likely to skip out on a fair share of market days in 2019, a financial call that trickles down to the bottom line of the market itself. The farmers market makes its money on booth fees. The fewer farmers in attendance, the less money the market makes.

It’s a revenue problem farmers market General Manager Debbie Burns said the organization is trying to tackle. This year, it reduced booth fees for the Tuesday market in an effort to draw more farmers.

Burns said she couldn’t remember the amount of the reduction but estimated it at about 50 percent.

“We’re all about helping the farmers,” she said. “That’s what our mission is.”

Burns declined to detail the financial strength of this year’s season but said, “The market is strong.”

The same is true for some of the market’s luckier vendors.

Pat Montoya’s 12-acre Velarde orchard sits on the banks of the Rio Grande, so for him, drought is more often an abstract concept than a devastating reality. This year, his apple trees are “overburdened.”

“We have got too much of everything,” he said. “We’ve got so many apples, we’re doing U-Picks every day we’re not at market. … [Customers] don’t even need ladders. There’s so much fruit hanging on the trees that you can just pick a bushel in about five minutes.”

At last week’s Tuesday market, Montoya’s stall was stocked with the trees’ yield, cartons and buckets filled with Bartlett pears, Honeycrisp and Golden Delicious apples. He also sold sweet Peaches ’N Cream corn, a varietal Romero described as “probably the best corn that you will ever taste.”

“We’re fighting the raccoons to get it,” he said. “They like it, too.”

But the drought hasn’t entirely passed Montoya by. The usually rushing river nearby is a constant reminder of his fellow farmers’ plight.

“It’s scary,” he said. “I always thought, ‘Oh, we’re off the Rio Grande, we’re fine. We’re invincible, no problem.’ But I’ve never seen [the river] so low as long as I’ve been on the property. We’ve been there 80 years, and I’ve been involved 40 years.”

To get water into their ditch, Montoya and his team have to temporarily close a head gate on the river and divert its flow.

Still, Montoya isn’t too worried.

“A drought is usually answered with a flood,” he said. “Mother Nature will catch up somehow.”

This story has been corrected to reflect Pat Montoya’s name, which was previously incorrectly stated as Pat Romero.

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