What’s in a name? The act of naming—a child, a pet, a company, a farm—is a time-honored tradition, a ritual dating back to our origins in which we invest meaning, hopes and aspirations. With farms, names tend toward the descriptive and practical. They are grounded, based in an everyday reality of seasons, tools, seedlings. Hence a name like Green Tractor Farm.
In these days of industrial food production, of so-called “enriched” foods and empty calories, we’re just as hungry for authenticity, for a taste of something real, as we are for fresh greens. When we head to the farmers market on a Saturday morning, we’re looking for a narrative that rings true, a story of hand-raised produce, grown just down the road, presented by familiar faces.
That’s why I was so tickled to discover that there really is a green tractor at Green Tractor Farm. It’s not a logo gimmick; it’s the real deal. The story of that green tractor, and the recent addition of a second green tractor, is a parable of heritage and adaptation that characterizes the farm’s history and future.
The green tractor in question was originally used by Tom Dixon’s father, primarily for the cultivation of alfalfa. When the farm began its conversion to drip systems, after decades of flood irrigation, the single front wheel configuration of the tractor could no longer navigate the wider rows engineered for the new water strategy. By virtue of ingenuity and a bit of good luck, Tom was able to replace the front wheel with an alternate two-wheel front wheel axle (**** may need different technical term here). Rather than retire the tractor because it literally no longer fit the changing landscape of his farm, he was able to evolve it, recycling old parts to adapt it to the new system.
In the past few years, I have found myself returning time and again to the Green Tractor Farm booth at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. The greens were consistently tasty and beautiful and the faces of Tom and Mary Dixon were always friendly. I’ve come to discover they have a bit of a cult following at the market—loyal regulars who are as devoted to the farmers as to their fresh, delicious produce.
Recently, I noticed a new couple—two younger faces—working beside Mary and Tom. Farm interns, I thought, or children home for the holidays. It turned out to be their daughter Rachel and her husband Ned, who, with their own young daughter Isabella, have returned to New Mexico after years away to help with the family farm.
It’s a story unusual enough to be worth noting and more vital than we may realize. In 2012, the Huffington Post reported on the rising median age of farmers and ranchers in the U.S., identifying New Mexico as having the oldest average at nearly 60 years old. For the past century, the trend among rural and farming families has been toward migration, with the children leaving the farm for education and careers in the big, or at least bigger, cities. Here in Santa Fe, a city with a limited business base, it is true not only of farmers but of all high school and college graduates, who have a hard time finding the kind of well-paying jobs that pave the path toward careers, mortgages and school tuition.
In talking to the two generations of the Dixon family, it seems this return came as something of a surprise—albeit a pleasant one—to them, too.
The land on which the farm is situated, in La Cienega, has been in Tom Dixon’s family since his early childhood. A third-generation New Mexican, Tom recalls that while the land wasn’t a working farm at that time, his family always had a large, productive vegetable garden, and a substantial amount of the family’s free time was devoted to tending that garden, as well as the acreage of alfalfa they also maintained.
Once grown, Tom left the family property to live in Santa Fe, returning some years later with wife Mary and then 1-year-old daughter, Rachel. As their own children grew up, the family’s relationship with the land was much as it had been during Tom’s childhood—they grew alfalfa crops and tended an ever-expanding but purely domestic vegetable garden. The farm was a hobby; professionally, Mary and Tom earned a living as builders. It wasn’t until years after their children had flown the coop, for coasts east and west, that Mary and Tom, who says farming has always been in his blood, decided to fully devote their time to the farm. They gained organic certification in 2006, and by 2008 they were regular vendors at the Farmers’ Market.
By that time, their daughter Rachel had completed a degree in biology from San Francisco State University. Although she had been instrumental in helping the farm complete the organic certification, working long-distance from San Francisco, she hadn’t yet set her sights on a future in farming; rather she was considering a graduate degree in ecology. When her builder-turned-farmer parents came to visit, she took them on a tour of northern California farms. Through a convergence of circumstance, coincidence and maybe a dash of destiny, the tour led Rachel to what would become a three-year internship and eventually employment with Full Belly Farm, a certified organic farm located in the Capay Valley of northern California.
A few years later, Rachel met her future husband Ned Cromwell through a mutual friend at the annual California EcoFarm Conference. Ned, also an intern alumni of Full Belly Farm, was at that time learning the art of farming on his own Blue House Farm in the coastal region of Pescadero. Unlike Rachel, Ned hadn’t been born on a farm. But from an early age, he had a ravenous appetite for the great outdoors—including camping with his father and attending an annual summer camp that featured a vegetable garden. As an undergrad at UC Berkeley, he majored in ecology. He was inspired by experiences teaching outdoor education, and believed his path would lie in connecting people with the natural world in constructive, and even edible, ways. Although he found experiential science engaging, he was increasingly drawn to the myriad ecological, economic and social challenges of food, gardens and farming. This interest drew him to a program known in the contemporary organic farming community simply as the Apprenticeship: a highly competitive, six-month intensive instruction and work experience immersion in ecological horticulture, run by the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz. Just as Silicon Valley has its high tech “incubators,” the Apprenticeship cultivates the next generation of American farmers.
Ned was in the process, then, of learning just what it meant to be a new farmer when he and Rachel met. Following the birth of their daughter, the desire to be close to family, and perhaps for a deeper understanding of the history—and potential future—of the family farm, brought them back to Santa Fe, and brought a second, even larger green tractor to Green Tractor Farm.
This is Rachel and Ned’s first season as farmers in New Mexico and their journey is still in its infancy. Though seasoned farmers in their own right, with many years of farming experience between them, they are daily discovering the many differences between northern California and this new growing environment. They’ve changed climate, crops and challenges, exchanging the high humidity, fog belt yields of artichokes, strawberries and fava beans for arid, high desert natives like melons and eggplants. Instead of fighting fungal disease, they’re now facing intense insect pressure. But there’s one difference that seems to make all others pale in comparison.
As Rachel puts it, it’s all about the people. They are inheritors not only of the land but also of the devoted customers and community of supporters that make small-scale organic farming a sustainable and joyous undertaking. It’s the people who show up every week, loyal patrons, who make it possible to keep a farm like Green Tractor going, and going strong. After their experience working to establish a new farm in northern California, Ned and Rachel have come to appreciate just how essential and vibrant that cyclical relationship is here in Santa Fe.
The weekly harvest at Green Tractor illustrates a thriving model of that reciprocity. Each Friday, in preparation for the Saturday market, an assembled crew of family members, employees and volunteers helps to harvest, wash and prepare the produce for market. Among the crew is Josie, who began helping on the farm around six years ago. Within a year, she had taken it upon herself to begin a tradition that echoes that of a restaurant’s “family meal”—a “farm lunch,” sourced primarily from that week’s harvest, designed both to feed the harvesters and to provide inspirational ideas to recommend to market shoppers looking for new uses for familiar ingredients.
Throughout the years, Josie has carefully archived and recorded the meals—the recipes, the seasonal details, the family occasions. She hopes to publish the archive in a book that will serve as part Farmer’s Almanac, part chef’s adventure, called, of course, The Green Tractor Lunch Book (*** – need to confirm name). Given the new chapter just now unfolding at the farm, let’s hope it’s the first edition of many to come.
You can visit Tom and Rachel at their farm booth every Tuesday and Saturday at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market.
Story and photos by by Gabriella Marks