AZTEC — The Aztec Farmers' Market began its summer season last week in the Hiway Grill parking lot, offering local food grown no farther than 100-radius.
Every Wednesday, vendors from around San Juan County lay out tables bursting with seasonal produce. The market lasts through the first frost, which is typically in late October.
The all-volunteer market offers an open-air alternative to the produce sections of grocery stores.
Robert Paschall, an Aztec native and Hiway Grill head chef and owner, invited the market to use his eatery's parking lot after a location switch last year.
"I used to rush out to drive over to the market at the old location," Paschall said. "Now, I can just walk outside and gather up all the fresh food and carry it back into our kitchen. It's a no-brainer, really."
Since buying the restaurant in 2010, Paschall has redone the menu with a focus on fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. Having the market set up shop so close gives a bumper crop of benefits to the community and to diners, too.
"It's my favorite time of year to be a chef," he said. "I get to stay fresh, be creative with ingredients that are there that day."
Alongside locally produced honey, eggs, goat milk and a variety of greens, in mid-July the market will likely have plenty of the first season's helpings of squash, sweet ears of corn and green beans.
Last week, Paschall used collard greens, squash and onions he bought from growers to produce the specials he features each Wednesday. Last year, his butternut squash spaghetti in light white wine sauce was such a hit, he kept it as a special for two weeks straight.
"The market is such a great group of people who really know their stuff," Paschall said. "Plus, I wind up getting some amazing heirloom veggies and things I can't predict they'll have that make for a fun creative crunch time in the kitchen. Every good cook loves a food challenge, and people note how fresh it tastes."
The market holds a raffle each Wednesday for a chance to win $20 of Aztec Farmers' Market Bucks. Winners can also receive a handmade shopping basket from Ghana, Africa.
"Our market has a smaller, more intimate feel, but public awareness is improving around here," said Pauline Pao, manager of the market since 2008. "We see a lot of regulars, of course, but a lot of people pull over and come over, too."
Part of a growing group of farmers' markets throughout the state, three markets -- Aztec, Farmington and Kirtland -- belong to the New Mexico Farmers Marketing Association, which holds annual meetings for managers like Pao, offers liability insurance to the markets and supports farmers and consumers with a range of programs.
Two of those, Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition and the WIC Farmers' Market Nutrition programs, benefit low-income seniors and women, infants and children. The Aztec market accepts checks from both programs. Negotiations are underway for the market to reinstate its ability to accept SNAP food stamp cards.
Pao, who has a degree in horticulture, spent six years as field manager for a community-supported agriculture farm in Las Cruces.
"The CSA farm model is like a subscription service," she said. "You pay up front for a season's worth of the food grown, a portion of the harvest."
She and her husband moved to Aztec and bought a 4-acre farm where Pao grows vegetables and flowers.
"I was a vendor before I took over managing the market," Pao said. "Telling people about how and where their food is grown brings people back to the seasonability of food, how it can be prepared and, of course, the incredible flavor."
With the bumper crop of summer season produce peaking in August and September, the market offers surprises, along with standard fare.
"A vibrant farmers' market is an asset," Pao said. "It gauges the health of a community and gives people the opportunity to learn about the food they're eating and practice not being so dependant upon frozen, shipped food."