Farmers’ markets are just about everywhere – from big cities to small villages. Besides fresh fruits and vegetables, these local events offer farm-fresh eggs, flowers, crafts, baked goods, homemade soaps, herbal concoctions and even live music and other forms of entertainment. Of course, the crucial factor is that everything (theoretically, even the entertainers) are of local provenance or vintage. The stress for most legitimate farmers’ markets – as far as produce is concerned – is that it’s community-grown.

Kate Wilson

Kate Wilson started the Ramah Farmers’ Market in 1996.

Photo Credit: Linnea Thornton

Pat Wolford

Pat Wolford is one of the faithful growers at the Ramah Farmers’ Market, selling homegrown cosmos and pickled peppers.

Photo Credit: Linnea Thornton

Community table

The Ramah Farmers’ Market community table (overseen by the lady in the red apron) gets a prime spot under an enormous cottonwood tree.

Photo Credit: Linnea Thornton

Of all the farmers’ markets I’ve visited in my home state of New Mexico, my favorite is one of the smallest. A self-confessed arugula addict, I can’t find this spicy green in my local supermarket, so that’s just the excuse I need to drive 60 miles to Ramah (Population: 500) on Saturday mornings from June to October. There, under the generous shade of some elderly cottonwoods, I find my wonderful arugula, as well as other pesticide-free greens (and potatoes, squash, radishes, turnips…and more). Just what any farmers’ market patron would expect, right? But as I’ve gotten to know some of the growers over the season, I’ve learned there’s much more going on in Ramah on Saturday mornings under those cottonwoods than mere commercial transactions. There’s a true community.

The Ramah Farmers’ Market was founded 11 years ago by Kate Wilson, a Midwestern transplant. At the time, Kate was a stay-at-home mom hoping to earn extra money by doing something she loved. A practitioner of the French intensive method of gardening, Kate ended up each season with more produce than her family needed. So she and a few other gardeners hit upon the idea of starting a local farmers’ market. After securing the market’s current location under some large, rent-free trees (shade can be a huge help in persuading customers to linger), the tiny market opened for business one summer Saturday morning. “There were only three growers at first, but they were dedicated and devoted,” Kate recalls.

The second year, the stay-at-home mom discovered the New Mexico Farmers’ Marketing Association (NMFMA), and enlisted its help. “They were an excellent resource,” she says. “Suddenly there was someone guiding me and coaching me, holding my hand and giving financial support. I had [public relations] money, so I could run radio ads, print posters and promote the event.”

Kate admits that the first offerings at the market were skimpy. It was hard to convince other growers that the small amount of money they’d earn from selling extra produce was worth the effort. But in the market’s third year, the organizers invited local crafters to join the mix – a big boost for stabilizing the event. The only rule was that the crafts for sale had to be locally produced and contain at least one locally grown item.

By its fourth year, the Ramah market was starting to attract attention. There was an air of anticipation among the locals as they wondered when the market would open. Word got around that not only was the event offering quality produce, it was now the place to get together with neighbors, enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry, linger and chat.

As traffic increased, tourists driving down scenic Highway 54 began to pull over when they saw all the cars. The local arts council began to feature a mini-show with an artist of the month. A massage therapist set up shop. The owner of a local pet-rescue shelter began to arrange adoptions and solicit donations at a table. Besides fresh produce and organic eggs, visitors could now get flower arrangements, jewelry and ceramics by local craftsmen – even a cookbook with Ramah Farmers’ Market recipes!

In 2006, Jackie Rossignol and Denis Black took over the event’s management for Kate, exploring new ways to reach out to the local community and increase involvement. The couple, who grows produce on their own land under a sustainable model of farming, have made it their mission to persuade other local gardeners and growers to participate in the market. For them, the fact that the market is creating a strong sense of community is even more significant than sales.

The duo hopes to teach the benefits of creating sustainable communities through a network of cooperation and sharing. The idea is to foster relationships so that growers can rely on their neighbors to provide them with what they didn’t grow for themselves. They even wave aside protests of “I don’t have enough left over to make it worthwhile,” by suggesting those growers participate in a community table: Anyone with just a little produce can sell what they’ve got next to their neighbors’ harvest at a table manned by a volunteer.

“I encourage them to think of it as a way to earn enough money at the community table to buy seeds for next year,” Jackie says.

The Ramah Farmers’ Market ends its season in early October with its annual pie contest (at least one ingredient in the pie had to be locally grown) and a community-wide celebration. And now with fall’s arrival, both fields and farmers get a rest – and the chance to gear up for next spring!