Noting how extreme weather has recently challenged even the sturdiest farms of Northern New Mexico, Lisa Fox, owner of Southwest Chutney and a longtime veteran of the farming community, is deeply rethinking many of her most cherished paradigms.
"When you start talking about sustainable," Fox said, "I don't know what that means anymore."
Fox's fruit and nut chutneys, considered "value-added" products that contain ingredients provided by local farms, have been a steady presence at the Santa Fe Farmers Market for about 10 years. Fox has even served on the market's board of directors.
For the past six years, Fox has been the voice of the local farming community, producing a radio show called Farming Thru the Seasons with the Taos-based nonprofit production group Cultural Energy. The show airs on KRZA Community Radio.
Archives for the program eventually led to a beautifully photographed book, Artisan Farming: Lessons, Lore, and Recipes, published in 2007 by Gibbs Smith. Co-written with guidebook author Richard Harris, Fox said the book reads like a road trip through the state's farming communities, and it draws heavily from her recorded discussions with local farmers.
Harris passed away in November after a brief illness. Many of Harris's recipes are included in the book. "He really appreciated the farmers market. It was one of his big loves and passions. He had done a lot of writing about the culture and history of the Southwest, and he really knew about the food."
But the strength of the local food supply has come into question for Fox.
Last summer, after February's arctic freeze proved to be the death-knell for many small farms, orchards and value-added producers, Fox was forced to regroup. She renamed her business SWC and is now designing custom jams for private labels.
She also converted her commercial-processing kitchen in Questa into a cafe and bakery with a retail store, selling local products such as soaps and garlic and lavender oils, among other items. She also provides gluten-free baked goods for the farmers market's cafe and stocks a greenhouse with herbs.
"I'm definitely rethinking how to stay at the market. The main thing is to have a product that is shelf-stable, so if you don't sell out in a week it's not a lost cause, and you don't have to eat it all yourself."
But she hasn't stopped thinking about the bigger picture. "With my involvement in the farming community, I feel like I'm so privileged," Fox said. "I may be struggling to pay my rent, but I live on the top of the food chain. I am the 1 percent when it comes to eating. I could not eat like this in New York City, unless I made $400,000 a year.
"I've learned that when we talk about sustainable and local [food], we are limiting the discussion. When I think about the world's hungry, we have to bring it into the reality of a growing population. I've been rethinking a lot of these things," she said.
Fox said her probing into villains of the local food movement -- such as genetically modified foods or hamburger grown in a petri dish -- has put her on the opposite end of the spectrum of people she has always allied with.
"The people who invented that [GMOs] did it for a very good reason: To feed the world's hungry," she said.
"I admit I've fallen off the mutual-admiration society, which was a nice place to be. But the prices for [organic or grass-fed] meat and cheese are so high; I don't see how an ordinary family can keep buying it. I'm on the other edge of this argument now, I know."
Fox has been on both sides of the equation, she said. She spent years working in the natural-grocery business, but she also was a mother on welfare in New York City in 1971. At that time, Fox said her health suffered when she had to relinquish her costly health-food diet for foods that she could purchase with food stamps.
She also has a long history of activism, starting with the fledgling Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s. Today, she believes that agriculture and protecting the food supply should be the forefront of activism. "It's really about being a witness now. It's not a matter of judging," she said, noting how even well-intentioned consumers are still easily swayed by marketing and branding.
"People don't like to hear this, but the arbitrary radius that's been invented to determine locally grown is just not sustainable. The food shed is the watershed; what makes our food local and regional is the availability of the watershed, and Colorado and the Rio Grande are our watershed."
For Farming Thru the Seasons archives, visit www.culturalenergy.org
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