Perspectives from the Field: Agriculture, Culture, and the Creation of Meaning in Northern New Mexico
By: Maclovia Quintana Posted On: July 9, 2014
by Maclovia Quintana, research & education intern
People have been farming in northern New Mexico for generations running into centuries, my own family among them. When I first came to Yale in 2007, I did not expect that I would eventually end up studying the very place I came from. But this is the nature of New Mexico—you may leave, but it never leaves you. Now, as a recently-graduated Masters student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, I have focused my research on small-scale agriculture in northern New Mexico, on the way that it has changed over time, but most importantly on the way that we have so consistently turned to farming to inform our own identities. Most of my research has focused on better understanding what motivates practicing farmers, with the hope that this would illuminate new pathways for bringing more people into agriculture.
This research was inspired by my work in 2011-2012 for the Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute, during which time I was able to observe farmers’ incredible dedication to their practice, even in the face myriad economic and climatic challenges. I found myself wondering what it was that motivated farmers in northern New Mexico to keep farming, despite relatively small economic returns and an increasingly unpredictable growing season. I observed that the market served not only as an economic outlet for farmers, but also as a place where community itself was created. It was a place where farmers could share their love of the land with others, both through the produce they sold and through the stories they told. I realized that an understanding of these stories could help the Institute to better serve their demographic.
In northern New Mexico, agriculture is culture. Farming has been practiced continuously here for so long because it is a self-constitutive process: people derive meaning from agriculture and in turn imbue it with meaning, and are therefore motivated to continue farming. This meaning is best understood through the concept of querencia. Querencia, a Spanish word, means literally “beloved place.” In northern New Mexico, querencia particularly invokes the connection to place and love of the land that is produced through agricultural practice. Querencia informs a situated identity for many people in northern New Mexico, even those whose livelihoods are no longer particularly rural.
Querencia roots us to a particular place, to the physical and cultural landscape of rural northern New Mexico. Northern New Mexicans feel a strong sense of place, a connection to the landscape that is largely rooted in the historical continuity of agricultural practice here. Author Keith Basso describes sense of place as “the idea of home… of entire regions and local landscapes where groups… have invested themselves… and to which they feel they belong.” In northern New Mexico, we have invested ourselves in the landscape through agriculture; we belong to this place that quite literally sustains us—both physically and culturally.
Querencia situates someone in place and in time. It is memory experienced through the landscape. Modern farmers in northern New Mexico are connected not only to the land that they use, but also to the history of land use in the region. They take pride in actively continuing that tradition. Querencia informs not only identity, but also a practical land ethic. This situated love of the land, a product of a long history of continuous land use, creates the basis for appropriate land management.
Querencia can be produced through other land-based activities, but it is most directly manifested in agriculture. There has been a continuous farming practice for hundreds of years in northern New Mexico. Many current farmers are using land that has been in their families for generations. They plow the same fields their great-grandparents did, and irrigate from the same acequias. Their connection to the land is based in a living tradition.
In northern New Mexico, our sense of querencia ties us to the past and gives us hope for the future. The fate of small-scale agriculture seems tenuous everywhere, and in particular in New Mexico. The growing season is becoming shorter and drier as the reality of climate change becomes undeniable. We are losing old farmers faster than we can replace them with young ones. Maintaining optimism can be daunting. And yet if you take a moment to sit on the banks of the acequia on a summer evening, to look over your rows of garlic, the chile ripening from green to red, you can feel how deeply rooted agriculture is in the landscape—and how deeply we are rooted because of that. Any farmer will tell you how difficult the work of farming is, and yet they keep doing it. It is a labor of love in the truest sense, born of a love of place, a love of tradition, and an enduring commitment to preserve both.
Farmers markets are a place where growers come together with the broader community to make this preservation possible. It is where farmers’ connection to the land can be communicated to the consumers who directly benefit from it. In northern New Mexico, farmers markets play an important role not only in economic development and community health, but also in cultural preservation. Markets are a venue through which querencia can be shared with a larger audience, thus potentially leading to a more widely-accepted understanding of why markets and local agriculture are important. My research has led me to understand how important it is that those who run markets in northern New Mexico also have an appreciation of querencia. It is only through an awareness of what is truly important to farmers that the Institute and other comparable organizations will be able to most effectively serve their constituency.