Agriculture: A thriving way of life

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The shiny, bright green and red food staple of New Mexico shaped the culture that grew along side it by gathering communities together at harvest time.

Tomas Serna, left, and Blake O’Hare, right, went into business together to start a farming operation in Peralta as a means to help them offset their college expenses. The O’Hare-Serna Farm market stand is located next to Walgreens at the “Y” in Los Lunas.

At this time of year, the air around the local farmers markets is heavily scented by the smoky, spicy aroma of roasting chile, and flaming red strings of chile pods, called ristras, hang from market rafters.

The ristras are used today as decorations, but in the old days, ristras were strung simply as a means to dry and store the chile, like beans, for future meals, said Teresa Chavez, of Chavez Farms.

It was the whole winter food supply, she said.

It seems uncertain who originally brought chile to New Mexico, but Teresa’s husband, David, was taught it was the Spanish who brought chile into the region.

It may be that Spanish explorers brought chile up to North America from the southern continent, or it could be that New Mexican Native peoples traded with indigenous South Americans for it long before, but however it got here, it is a crop that has had enormous influence on the people who settled in New Mexico.

In fact, it was the early Spanish settlers who cultivated the long chile we are familiar with today, said Dr. Stephanie Walker, New Mexico University extension vegetable specialist. Though some of the short chile from central South America are still grown in northern parts of the state, she said.

In the early years of Spanish settlement, there were a few primary staple crops.

Native Americans had long been cultivating corn, squash, beans and perhaps chile, but alfalfa was brought to the Americas by Spanish colonizers as feed for their horses.

Today, communities up and down the Rio Abajo grow a large variety of crops, including chile, corn, beans, squash, melons, wheat, alfalfa, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, grapes, apples and many others.

The Chavez Farm in Los Lunas is known for their tasty chile, but if there is a special technique, David Chavez isn’t telling.

“I grow chile like they did 100 years ago,” Chavez said. “That’s the secret, if it’s a secret.”

The Chavez Farm doesn’t use any synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides, and they rotate their crop fields every year.

“Everything I grow here is organic,” he said. “It’s not certified organic, but it’s organic.”

He rotates his alfalfa fields about every six to seven years, turning alfalfa fields to chile crops, providing them with a richly fertilized soil from the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live symbiotically on the alfalfa plant root.

In turn, Chavez rotates his chile fields to alfalfa, often allowing his cattle to graze the chile stubble in a cycle of natural soil fertilization.

It takes all winter to prepare for the chile season in mid-April, when chile seeds will be sown, he said.

Then there are the arduous tasks of nurturing the plants by pulling weeds, irrigating at the right time and in the right amount, then harvesting the pods plant-by-plant.

The sun beats down on the parked cars at the Chavez market, while shoppers inspect the chile, apples, cucumbers and other produce under the sheltering relief of canopies that cover the produce stand.

Teresa, in blue jeans and sneakers, with her cell phone attached to the strap of her hip pouch, balances sale transactions at the counter and weighing chile with incoming phone orders.

A young hired hand roasts green chile under an aroma-filled adjacent canopy, while David sits and visits with the customers.

“Ask the boss,” he answers one shopper’s query, because it is Teresa who runs and operates the market.

The scene is almost an identical repeat of a market 100 years ago, when Teresa’s grandfather, Ernest Sichler, farmed the land, and his prodigy worked under the canopy.

It was a time when stringing ristras was a social occasion and local farmers and neighbors gathered to do the work and visit with one another.

The Chavezes work their Los Lentes land that has been farmed for more than 200 years — land that belonged to Silverio and Ernestine Sais.

“Silverio told me that his father’s father had farmed the land,” said David.

Ernestine is Ernest Sichler’s sister, children of George and Mary Sichler II, who came to Valencia County from Germany in 1882, and began farming in Los Lentes, said Rico Gonzales, museum technician and oral history coordinator with the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts. He is working on a historical account of agricultural families in the Los Lunas area.

Ernest, Ernestine and George Sichler are three of 13 siblings who farmed in Los Lunas, and the other siblings, two of whom died, went on to California and different places. George, who is now 96, is the only survivor, Teresa said.

Sichler and Sais are two historical family names in the area, known for their chile and alfalfa crops. The early communities were close-knit because everybody participated, Chavez said.

“The women did the chile and the cooking, the men usually did the slaughtering, you know, it was a joint effort for everything,” he said. “Alifas (Valenzuela) would sometimes slaughter a pig just to have people over, and they drank a lot of homemade wine.”

“I grew up selling chile since I was little,” Teresa said. “right by Blake’s Lotaburger where Tai’s (Chinese) restaurant is, and that was before it was sacks — it was bushels.”

Her family farmed chile and alfalfa, and all the land behind the Luna Mansion was her grandfather’s orchard, she said. And down Sichler Road, it was all orchard.

“We still farm that,” Teresa said. “We don’t own it, we rent it from my brother. We’re still farming land that belonged to my grandfather.”

At harvest time, locals are so anxious to try the new crop of chile they will warm a tortilla and put in a peeled, freshly roasted chile, sprinkled with a bit of garlic salt, a piece of cheese and roll it up to eat it just like that, said Alex Aragon, a regular customer at the Chavez Farm.

The busy market is filled with melodic Spanish banter, occasionally muted by the roasters that sound like mythic dragons spewing flames.

The Chavezes grow a variety of chile, including a few plants of Lumbre, which is probably one of the hottest chiles, barker’s, which is the next hottest, then Sandia hots, the medium hot Big Jim’s, and the mild New Mexico Heritage chile.

“And that’s really tasty,” Teresa said. “That goes back to the heritage seed.”

Among the old time traditional farmers of the county, an occasional new farmer comes to the area. Clovis friends Blake O’Hare, 21, and Tomas Serna, 19, started farming in Peralta last year. They currently have nine acres and hope to expand to 30 acres next year.

They grow chile, alfalfa and corn, selling the sweet corn to the local school district.

The young men worked with O’Hare’s father, Mike, who farms wheat and corn in Clovis, and picked up an interest in farming. That led them to consider farming and to form a partnership to raise money for their college expenses, O’Hare said.

Serna has a few friends in Isleta Pueblo who shared their farming know-how with him, and local farmers, such as Dan Warring, of K.D. Farms, and Jim Wagner, have also shared their farming practices.

They have also turned to the University of New Mexico’s research on chile varieties to select their seeds.

“We use all New Mexican varieties for our chile,” O’Hare said. “And we’ve done a lot of research on the chile grown here, versus the chile grown in Hatch.”

Valencia County is a perfect place to grow good chile because of its particular elevation, water and soil, they said.

“The soil sediment here is really, really good,” said O’Hare. “That’s what the Middle Rio Grande Valley is kind of known for — the quality of the soil. Also, the alkali in the water isn’t something we have to deal with either, and that’s what makes a chile taste really bitter.”

Serna said NMSU is doing a lot of research on capsaicin extraction, the substances that gives chile peppers its heat, because there is a good market for it as an additive for salsa and other spicy foods.

“They try to do as much development as they can to help put New Mexico on the map for pepper growing, because we obviously have one of the best climates to support that,” Serna said. “They’re trying to make us more competitive by mechanization, too.”

The chile the new farmers have grown has received positive reviews and recognition, they said.

“Our farm is right there next to the road,” Serna said. “They’ve seen us out there from day one working hard. It’s kind of cool for them to see. It’s a little bit different view on the way they get their food. It’s not just straight supermarket, there’s actually a feeling associated with it now.”

Amid the sounds of rush hour traffic on Main Street in east Los Lunas, the O’Hare Serna Farm produce stand is nestled next to Walgreens at the “Y,” and the vibrant color of the chile ristras hanging from the rafters is a sentinel of New Mexican culture.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.