Growing in the Autumn of Life
By Lesley S. King
Gilberto Naranjo reaches skyward to pick a Jonathan apple from a craggy tree in his backyard in Chimayo. It’s a familiar motion, something he’s done every fall for a half century on this land and prior to that on other family land here in northern New Mexico. But now it holds a special significance. While for many years the act was but a hobby within a busy life, now it is a livelihood.
Most people who shop at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market know the Naranjos— Gilberto, with his head of shiny silver hair, and his wife Isabel, with her smooth olive skin. They’re the quiet couple who always stand behind a simple card table filled with heartily packed baskets of peaches, plums, grapes, green beans and more. I first became a customer because of their sweet red onions but soon indulged in their other produce, becoming a fan of their blackberries and later in the season, their apples.
The special flavor of their produce derives from an intimacy that only a backyard garden can provide. The onions grow among the roots of apple trees, and the grape bushes drape along an old fence that cuts haphazardly through the orchard. Their apple trees—Jonathans, Red and Golden Delicious, Roman Beauties—form rows, yes, but they’re not carefully pruned over years as one would find elsewhere. Instead they are wild looking, with arms akimbo like in a haunted orchard, many of them more than fifty years old.
This land is richly inhabited by people as well. The two-and-a-half-acre plot in Chimayo was at one time part of a larger farm, but like many in northern New Mexico it has been split up among family members. Gilberto and Isabel’s four sons and six grandchildren pick their own food here, the kids playing among the rows, circling the scarecrow and hiding within the zinnias that grow in a forest of orange near the work shed. The kids stop to replenish themselves with a yellow peach or a mouthful of grapes. So, when I bite into one of Gilberto and Isabel's apples, the flavor is imbued with all of that, lending a sense of the sweetness and tartness of a full life.
And that fullness is the true magic at work here. Gilberto and Isabel farm for the love of it. Having already built, sustained and completed a career as a correctional officer at the New Mexico State Penitentiary, he’s completed a full life’s work. But still he’s out here, planting onions, watering from the Acequia del Distrito, and harvesting apples. On market days, he and Isabel wake at 4:30 am. Having already loaded their truck, they drive to town in the dark, watching the sunrise as they prepare for customers.
The job isn’t simply physical either. Gilberto studies the market, noting what other farmers are selling and what customers tend to buy, always adjusting his garden. “You keep supplying the market,” he says. “When you have tomatoes, everybody has tomatoes, but you plant enough to sell.” When he sees too much of a particular vegetable or fruit available at a particular time, he makes adjustments, adding new varieties to his garden, ones that might ripen earlier or later. For instance, he has purple plums and Stanley plums. “I have them planted so they don’t come all at one time,” he says.
Though Gilberto really started gardening seriously upon his retirement, his skill and knowledge have built over many years. “Back in the early 1970s, I used to peddle apples in the neighborhood—people would buy a peck or a half or a quarter of a peck,” he says. Then he and Isabel started selling at the early Santa Fe Farmers’ Market at St. Anne Parish. They moved with the market to the location on Alto Street, then to San Busco, and on to the Railyard, so they’ve seen it through its many incarnations.
Now we stand in their orchard, with the fall sun slanting through the trees and scent of aging apples rising up from the damp ground beneath us. Turkeys cluck, and down the road someone revs an engine. Gilberto picks apple after apple, placing them in a canvas harvesting bag and then hauling them to his storage shed near where the zinnias, dahlias, and marigolds are just finishing their blooms. “If you plant it right and think about it, you can do a lot,” Gilberto says, summing up his simple but profound philosophy. And such, I muse, is the truth of life.