Editor’s Note: Today’s story is the first in a new series of articles on efforts to build a sustainable economy in the Paso del Norte borderland.
On a blazing July day, the temperature in El Paso’s Union Plaza District was almost as hot as the brassy sounds of the local musical group Riboflavin that entertained the crowd at the Downtown Art and Farmers Market (DAFM) with bursts of jazzy R&B.
Located below the Texas border city’s new baseball stadium, the market offers fresh produce, eggs, jewelry, leather, doggie treats, paintings, digital drawings, and other imaginative forms of art. Food trucks dish out hot sandwiches, donuts, traditional tacos and burritos, and not-so-typical morsels of Caribbean cuisine.
“We want to provide something for everyone,” said Valerie Venecia, the market’s manager. Held every Saturday from 9 am to 1 pm, the market could be considered a leader in the field of inter-institutional, inter-generational, inter-cultural and inter-state cooperation.
Employed by the City of El Paso’s Department of Museum and Cultural Affairs, Venecia ran down how the market leverages resources from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Texas Commission on the Arts, the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Go Texan agricultural program, the city government, and the vendors themselves.
Venecia defined the collaboration as a “true example of community building at its best.” A potpourri of resources and talents are used to contract growers, stage cooking demos that utilize the freshly-harvested produce on sale at the market, book live music and, of course, attract more customers.
Now in its fourth year, the DAFM has grown, said Venecia, who grasped a hand-held counter to tally the day’s attendance. With still more than an hour to go, Venecia had counted nearly 700 people, a number markedly up from the previous weekend’s turnout of 500. Currently, the market has a 100-booth capacity. In the upcoming fiscal year each vendor will pay a $50 quarterly fee, or $4.00 per market day. “It’s pretty inexpensive,” Venecia insisted.
On a website, the City of El Paso bills free parking for the weekly event. In keeping to its word, however, the city government would be advised to make sure meters in the Union Plaza area clearly state that Saturday parking is free, as do other downtown area meters closer to the Santa Fe Bridge that connects with Ciudad Juarez. At least two visitors reported unnecessarily feeding meters which did not contain the free Saturday message on a recent day.
A great portion of the fresh produce sold at the El Paso market is actually grown just across the state line in southern New Mexico’s Dona Ana County. While the legal battle between Texas and New Mexico over use of Rio Grande water has been in the news as of late, the DAFM is an instance of cooperation between Tejanos and Nuevomexicanos in harnessing land and water for mutual benefit.
A United States Department of Agriculture grant allowed the DAFM to contract New Mexico’s La Semilla Food Center, a non-profit organization based in the neighboring community of Anthony, to link growers with the El Paso market.
DAFM shoppers encounter goodies from Anthony farms, including Sol y Tierra and La Semilla’s own operation. At La Semilla’s booth, fresh eggs sold on behalf of Sierra Vista Growers and malabar, a spinach-like plant that does well in very hot weather, have been hits with the buying public this year.
“It’s doing really well,” said La Semilla’s Cristina Dominguez-Eshelman. “We’re really excited by that.”
Across the street from La Semilla, Sol y Tierra’s booth maintains a well-stocked booth with picturesque piles of egg plant, garlic, heirloom tomatoes, a huge Armenian cucumber, and the first batch of this year’s green chile crop. According to Ivon Diaz, Sol y Tierra marketing coordinator, the farm functions as a training site for beginning farmers, with the program open to anyone above the age of 18.
A March 2014 economic analysis prepared for La Semilla Food Center estimated that the El Paso market had an annual gross sales of nearly $735,000 earned from the pockets of 31,213 shoppers. Considering the dollar multiplier effect, the report calculated the overall economic impact of the market at $3,917,180.38. Accordingly, the study’s authors projected annual state and municipal sales tax revenue at just over $86,839.
If sustainability and Main Street economics are watchwords at the DAFM, then vendor Mary Maskill knows the deep meaning of both concepts. A former medical instructor, Maskill said she lost her job when enrollment at a local career school precipitated a 10 percent staff reduction. Taking stock of her situation, Maskill decided to pursue her passion-paper art.
“I always wanted an opportunity like a farmers’ market, so when I heard that we had a farmers’ market in El Paso, I got really excited,” she said.
Neatly arranged for sale, Maskill’s art work exudes a home-spun brightness. Crafting paper-including recycled newsprint- the local resident produces pull-out photo albums, pop-up cards, paper flowers, weekly goal charts, and other creative pieces.
“We do this from home,” she proclaimed. Maskill said she and her truck-driver husband struggle to make ends meet, so the DAFM represents an important source of family income.
“Some days are really slow, but some days are like, wow, we almost sold out,” the artist added.
Quite the entrepreneur, Maskill sometimes sells handmade tortillas and “fruit-infused” waters, which she described as drinks made with slow-seeping fruit as opposed to blends. On her booth, visitors even notice a sales pitch for Maskill’s home. The ad notes a $30,000-plus sales reduction for an El Paso Upper Valley spread bearing fruit trees and a fish pond useful for mosquito control. Aiming to stave off foreclosure, the family dropped the price because of competition from new developments springing up in the borderland, Maskill said.
For Valerie Venecia, the consumer dollars spent every Saturday at the market have real impacts on the lives of Mary Maskill and the other vendors on hand.
“When (customers) come and purchase here at the market not only are they investing in their own community, but they are supporting families and children,” she said.
To meet a growing demand, the market manager welcomes more participation from those inclined to working the land. “We’re still looking for additional local farmers to boost it up,” Venecia said.
FNS readers interested in knowing more about the El Paso Downtown Artists and Farmers Market can go to: http://www.elpasotexas.gov/mcad/downtown_market.asp