It's a bustling Saturday morning at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, and Sarah Noss' casual attire and friendly, understated air are almost enough to make her blend into the general commotion.
Almost, because she's a head taller than most people here, and a near-constant stream of farmers, customers, volunteers and passersby stops to greet Noss or ask for her thoughts on some aspect of the market.
Since 2005, Noss has served as the executive director of the Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute, the nonprofit organization that supports the Santa Fe Farmers Market through direct assistance to farmers and outreach to the community at large.
Noss came by the job through a series of accidents, she says. After a career that took her from Chicago to Paris, Noss returned to her native Santa Fe in the 1990s.
"I grew up here, and I really like northern New Mexico," she says, munching a breakfast burrito from the popular pastry stand inside the Farmers Market building. "I love the culture, the food, the landscape, the air and the sun."
Years before she started working at the market, Noss had been working on a writing career. The jobs she took to pay the bills—with local nonprofit organizations and as a professional gardener—would eventually combine to form her current occupation.
"I sort of stumbled into this job because they needed somebody to help them build the [Farmers Market] building," Noss says. (She had experience working at the preservation organization Cornerstones Community Partnerships.)
"But then, over the course of time, I realized that this is about everything that I care about," Noss adds. "Food encompasses everything: the land, the water, the air, the sky, culture, community. It's a pretty perfect mix for me."
Today, Noss counts the LEED-certified building that houses the market as a major success, not only for farmers but also for Santa Fe in general.
"I'm pretty sure vendor income is going up," Noss explains. "Even though the economy's been bad, we've at least held our own and, in some cases, people have been able to expand their businesses." She says the market generates approximately $360,000 in gross receipts taxes each year—money that in turn pays for local government services and helps fund public schools.
"The building itself has had this huge impact," Noss says. "I think that's pretty amazing; it's stuff that people don't really realize."
The market's more obvious impact, of course, is the smorgasbord of fresh, local food and other products that flood the Railyard every Saturday and Tuesday. Particularly in summer, vendors offer astounding variety: tightly curled garlic scapes (delightful when grilled), alien-looking oyster mushrooms, the season's first cherries, snow-cones made from Dixon apple juice and every kind of salad green imaginable. Alongside women selling goat's milk lotion that comes in a soap-like bar, the "lavender lady" (dressed all in lavender, with a male compatriot gamely clad in a lavender Polo shirt and bright yellow shorts) sells handmade sachets. Noss points out another vendor who sells starter tomato plants from his greenhouse.
"That's pretty bitchin'," she says, grinning.
But the bustle of activity and cornucopia of fresh produce belie a local farming industry still plagued with problems, Noss says.
For starters, farmland is expensive in northern New Mexico, so convincing new growers to enter the industry is often an uphill battle. Noss says the institute is working on ways to lower the cost of land through conservation easements and other tactics.
Water, too, is always an issue, particularly in light of this year's drought.
Many small growers who sell their crops at the market rely on local rivers or acequia systems for water. "In Española," Noss says, "they're talking about maybe the acequias drying up in mid-July, so that's a pretty huge threat for the well-being of the market."
Noss says the institute has provided approximately $200,000 in loans to 75 local farmers—with only one default—to help them install more efficient irrigation systems, among other projects.
Finally, as experienced farmers age, Noss says, their heirs don't always want to continue farming, so the number of small farms in northern New Mexico may decrease.
Even so, Noss says, public awareness of the importance of small, local farms to the state's overall food security continues to grow and, as evidenced by the throng of people here this morning, the market also enjoys a loyal customer base.
To Noss, at least, it's impossible not to get excited about summer at the market.
"Summer, for me, is—it's fun to gauge it by the growing number of products that come in here," Noss says. "Asparagus comes in, and then it kind of disappears; rhubarb comes in and then disappears; the salad greens are prolific right now, and then in a month they'll be gone because it's too hot. I like to watch the seasons change according to the crops that come in."
Is there any one crop that truly epitomizes summer?
"Oh, Lord!" Noss says, laughing. "I guess I'd say peaches. Oh my God, peaches—local peaches—it's like sex."
Santa Fe Farmers Market
7 am-noon Tuesdays and Saturdays
3-7 pm Thursdays (starting June 30)
S Guadalupe Street and Paseo de Peralta