By Lesley S. King
You’d think that lettuce would have no scent, but if you put your face up to it, the aroma is tangy and wet like rain clouds. That’s what I smell as I walk along next to Phil Loomis at his Jacona Farm north of Santa Fe. We pass beds of autumn red lettuce, two star and romaine. Then the scent turns sharp as we come to arugula and spinach. At the door of a greenhouse, the Thai basil’s pungency nearly overtakes me. “As the day gets warmer, the smell gets so intense you can barely stay in there,” Phil says.
At the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, he’s known as the “Lettuce Man.” Out here on his four acres of cultivated fields, surrounded by cottonwood and apricot trees, century-old adobe homes and a few house trailers, I scan the beds, trying to figure out his secret. The lettuce tastes sweet when it touches your tongue, then a hint of bitter sneaks in, followed by a smooth buttery flavor. It doesn’t turn brown at the cut edges as lettuce tends to do; even after a week in the refrigerator, it magically stays fresh and crispy.
Phil’s background may be part of the secret. He comes from a family of Welsh coal miners, but his mother was raised on a farm in Kansas. “She taught me a lot,” he says, “mostly a love of growing things. Growing seems intuitive, and I think I got that from her.” As a child Phil enjoyed working in his family’s large garden in Albuquerque. He left the state for many years, but returned to the area and, in 1991, bought this farm with his partner because of the dark river-basin soil and the reliable Larga de Jacona acequia.
The farm sits at the point where the Tesuque and Nambé Rivers converge. “Here, in the night, the cold sinks down,” he says. This creates some farming challenges, most notably freezing in late spring and early fall, but it also helps crops such as spinach, garlic and lettuce, which like warm days and cool evenings. The place has a long farming history that’s embodied in its name. “The word Jacona is a Tewa Puebloan word meaning ‘place by the cliffs where they grow tobacco,’” he says.
Every farmer has his or her own reason for embracing such a challenging vocation. Some do it because it’s been a family tradition for generations, others because they like the technical aspects of understanding soil, plants and insects, and still others for a spiritual connection they find in the peace of the garden. Phil’s reason for working 10-hour days is a combination of these. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says. “It’s challenging and invigorating—to be able to earn my living doing it is something special.”
Still making our way through the rows, I have to ask again about his secret. “I just have a real inquisitive mind,” he replies. “I look at the plant and see things. It tells me what it’s getting and not getting, and what it needs.” Then with a shy smile, he begins: “I plug each one in.” So, while most farmers pour seeds directly into rows, he plants each one separately. “It gives you a nice uniform lettuce,” he adds. Next he holds up his scissors, which are his favorite tool. “Then I can get a really clean cut.”
Under the shade of an elm and next to the Larga de Jacona, he dumps bags of the cleanly cut lettuce into a plastic kiddy pool. Running his hands through the swirl of leaves, he rinses it. Next, he spreads it on a screen and covers it to drain. Finally, he puts it in mesh bags, which he swings over his head to dry. So, maybe it’s all of this that makes it so good—his childhood in the garden, his land’s history of tobacco farming hundreds of years ago, the cold air that drops down in the valley at night, his passion and conversations with his plants, and this careful, methodical process. Finishing, he hands me a bright green leaf. “I never allow it to wilt,” he says. “I keep it really fresh.”