AZTEC — Five-year-old Arliss Lee perhaps knows more about growing vegetables — and selling them — than many adults.

On the opening day of the Aztec Farmers' Market on Wednesday, he set up his own table with a little help from his 3-year-old cousin, Fiona Bridgewater.

The boy's mom, Francie Lee, and his aunt, Amy Bridgewater, were selling a sizable bounty of zucchini, kale, apples and cucumbers at the market, and their children, who help plant and harvest the family's produce, wanted customers of their own.

"I have the biggest squashes and food here," Arliss Lee said proudly, hoisting a large green squash over his head to entice customers. "So, do you want to buy these yet?"

Aztec residents Nikki Daily, center, and her two children, Madison, left, and Macie, shop on Wednesday during the opening day of the Aztec Farmers’
Aztec residents Nikki Daily, center, and her two children, Madison, left, and Macie, shop on Wednesday during the opening day of the Aztec Farmers' Market at the Hiway Grill in Aztec. (James Fenton — The Daily Times)

Francie Lee and Amy Bridgewater, who live in Aztec and Cedar Hill, respectively, help run Bridgewater Gardens. It's a family enterprise that started when Amy Bridgewater's husband, Vernon, thought he'd try to grow every known variety of tomato.

"His mom got so tired of canning all the tomatoes he grew that she told him, 'You've got to do something with all these tomatoes.' That's how he got started selling. He just brought them to the market to get rid of them," Amy Bridgewater said of the family farm's origins.

"And (the kids) know their way around a garden," added Francie Lee. "(Arliss) can weed and knows what to pull out and what not to. I'm thinking he's a natural."

Growers and shoppers took over the parking lot of Hiway Grill for opening day of the market.

Pauline Pao, the market manager, said the market starts small and builds from there, usually peaking in August and September, when more crops become plentiful.

"It's always iffy at the beginning of a farmers' market, this time of year," Pao said. "It all depends on when people's crops come out of their fields. People plant after the last frost, usually around Mother's Day."

Aztec resident Melissa May came to see what the first day of Aztec's selling season had to offer.

"I'm excited it's finally farmers' market season," she said. "I usually see what's available and plan what I'm making from that."

May bought honey from Bloomfield's Enchanted Bees, a bag full of vegetables and a sunscreen lotion made from goat's milk from Unique Le' Natural, an Aztec seller specializing in goat's milk products like cheese, cajeta and soaps.

Nikki Daily came by with her two children, Madison and Macie, to find honey, apples and the ingredients for a pizza the family planned to bake that night. They bought fresh mozzarella cheese made from goat's milk and all the veggie toppings.

"It's so nice to have a local market where you can talk with the growers and know where your food's coming from," Nikki Daily said.

She lives in Aztec but grew up on a 300-acre farm in Dallas, Ga. She credits farm-fresh food bought at markets like Aztec's for the healthy and savvy food choices her children make, including the freshly squeezed lemonade she and her kids bought to keep cool while perusing the market.

"I didn't walk into a grocery store until I was 12," she said. "When I had my children, I learned about all the crap that's in food and have bought all organic, local food as much as we can since. We don't do soda."

Other area markets began earlier in the summer, like Farmington's, which is on Saturdays and Tuesdays at Gateway Park.

Bloomfield's market, which is on Thursdays and is organized by the Chamber of Commerce, starts July 17.

A Saturday market at the Cedar Hill Schoolhouse, 12 miles north of Aztec on Road 2343, also started this month.

Another Saturday market in Shiprock starts in September at the Shiprock Chapter House. Brenna Clani-Washinawatok, a farmer who volunteers at the market, is always looking for more volunteers, but says the experience at the market is special.

"It really benefits the community, helps the farmers and the people," she said. "I volunteer because I want to see the market keep going. People take a lot of pride with it. There's also a lot of variety. I really like that."

Back at Aztec's market, Arliss Lee was down to the last squash at his seller's table when clouds began rolling in at 6 p.m. He offered it to a customer, holding the vegetable in both hands like an offering.

"This is my last one, and if you don't have any money to buy it, I'll let you have it for free," he said. "Don't worry. I have more at my house."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.