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San Felipe Pueblo melon farmer favors the old ways

By Denise Miller
Of the Journal
      This man is a melon specialist. If you want sweet, juicy melons to die for, this is the spot.
       Bright, yellow casaba melons with green undertones and wrinkly skins, globe-shaped honeydews and familiar cantaloupes are spread out on a Pendleton blanket. Ripe watermelons and native melons soon will replace the disappearing cantaloupes.
       At San Felipe Pueblo, Noah Garcia is growing melons. People might think of melon as a mid-summer crop, but in central New Mexico, Garcia said, his seeds were planted between mid-May and late June after the last frosts.
       Staggering the planting of seeds over those six weeks helps Garcia hedge his bets with weather and pests. He also ensures that not all melons ripen at the same time. A person who doesn't use farm machinery can tend, haul and sell only so many melons every week.
       Growing melons just as his great-grandfather, grandfather and father before him, Garcia was taught at a young age to care for them in a traditional way.
       “The maddest I ever saw my great-grandfather was when I brought over a tiller. From then on, I have only used a machete, hoe and shovels to do all of the farming.”
       Whether it's the lack of machinery or his general approach to farming — “we treat them like our kids,” he said of his melon plants — his casaba melons are so juicy anyone who eats one better have a napkin ready.
       Their firm, thick skin means a person can't smell when they are ripe, but if they are bright golden yellow, they are mature.
       Their mild sweetness is similar in flavor to a honeydew. But casabas can last a month or more.
       Most resources say to store melons in a cool, dry place. Garcia remembers his great-grandfather digging a 4-foot hole and, beginning with the heaviest watermelons, layering melons between straw and covering the hole with straw and dirt to protect them until Christmas, when they would eat the watermelon.
       Garcia said he prefers to store the winter casaba melons by hanging them so no side becomes bruised. This way they can last until November, he said. He makes nets from twine.
       I fashioned a simple and useful melon hammock from kitchen string.
       Garcia also sells native melons and watermelons. He hesitated to give the native melons another name and described them as mostly oval-shaped with bright yellow skin when ripe. The meat varies from light green to orange. The texture is softer than a honeydew.
       When I research native melons of New Mexico, the names I find are those belonging to the tribes, including Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Navajo, Santo Domingo and San Felipe.
       The seemingly general native melon takes on a more specific meaning: plants that have evolved in our harsh desert environment represent varieties as biologically diverse as the soil, water and pests of the microclimates in which they grow and the cultural diversity of the people who have stewarded them.
       When people buy local food they support genetic biodiversity and cultural diversity. When agriculture disappears, food and culture are lost or diminished.
       The reason Garcia didn't like farming as a child with his great-grandfather is why it means so much now.
       “I use to hide under the bed because he spoke the old language, and I hardly understood him,” he recalled, “but thanks to him I'm a farmer carrying on the family tradition.”
       Garcia said, he chops up the last melon and plants it in the ground as a prayer to the earth for a bountiful season ahead.
       As the growing season begins to crest, I'll add a song of thanks to New Mexico's farmers who, like Garcia, weather farming's uncertainties with hard work to bring us this food.
       Albuquerque Downtown Growers' Market, Eighth and Central at Robinson Park, 7 a.m.-11 a.m. Saturdays.
       Albuquerque Growers' Market, Alcazar Street, behind Talin World Market, SE corner of Central & Louisiana, 7 a.m.-noon Saturdays and Tuesdays.
       Albuquerque Nob Hill Growers' Market, Morningside Park, Lead and Morningside SE, 3-6:30 p.m. Thursdays.
       Belen Growers' Market, Anna Becker Park, N.M. 309/Reinken Ave., 4:30-7 p.m. Fridays.
       Bernalillo Farmers' Market, Camino del Pueblo (N.M. 313) & Our Lady of Sorrows Church, 4-7 p.m. Fridays.
       Cedar Crest Farmers' Market, Cedar Crest Center, 12127 N. N.M. 14, 3-6 p.m. Wednesdays.
       Corrales Growers' Market, Recreation Center, 500 Jones Road & Corrales Road, 9 a.m.-noon Sundays.
       Edgewood Farmers' Market, Eunice Court, behind NAPA Auto Parts, 3-7 p.m. Mondays.
       Los Ranchos Growers' Market, City Hall, 6718 Rio Grande NW, 7-11 a.m. Saturdays.
       San Felipe Farmers' Market, I-25 exit 252, on the west side of Casino Hollywood, 4-7 p.m. Wednesdays.
       Socorro Farmers' Market, Socorro Plaza Park, 8 a.m.-noon (or sellout) Saturdays, 5-7 p.m. Tuesdays.
       South Valley Growers' Market, Cristo Del Valle Presbyterian Church, 3907 Isleta SW, 8 a.m.-noon Saturdays.
       Dixon Co-op Farmers' Market, 215 N.M. 75, 4-7 p.m. Wednesdays.
       Eldorado, 7 Caliente Road, behind Brumby's Restaurant, 4-7 p.m. Fridays.
       Española Farmers' Market, 1005 N. Railroad Ave., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays.
       Los Alamos Farmers' Market, Mesa Public Library, Central and 20th, 7 a.m.-noon Thursdays.
       Pojoaque Valley Farmers' Market, 78 Cities of Gold, off U.S. 84/285 next to Poeh Pueblo Cultural Center, 2-6 p.m. Wednesdays.
       Santa Fe Farmers' Market. 1607 Paseo de Peralta at South Guadalupe, railyard, 7 a.m.-noon Tuesdays and Saturdays.
       Santa Fe Southside Market, Rodeo Road and Zafrano Road at Santa Fe Place parking lot (in front of JC Penney), 3-6:30 p.m. Thursdays. Season ends Sept. 25.
       Taos Farmers' Market, parking lot on Placitas next to Guadalupe Church, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays.
       Taos Sunday Market, KTAO Solar Radio Station parking lot, 9 N.M. 150, 8 a.m.-noon Sundays.
       Taos Pueblo. Red Willow Farmers' Market, 885 Star Road, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays.
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