In 2020, shopping outdoors may be just what the doctor ordered.
The good news is that you can social distance in the sun and still get your browsing and buying fix every weekend at two farmers markets on the Westside: Ardovino’s Desert Crossing Farmer’s Market and the Upper Valley Artist and Farmers Market.
While each is distinctive, the concept is the same: individuals serving individuals.
A chalkboard sign at a homemade cookie booth may have said it best: “When you buy from a small business, an actual person does a little happy dance.”
El Paso Inc. recently spent a weekend at the markets to round up some of the best there is to see at both.
Ardovino’s Desert Crossing Farmer’s Market starts early on Saturdays when the chickens are waking up nearby in their modified Airstream chicken coop. Celebrating its 20th season, this market draws people with its picturesque ambience, vendor variety and good food.
It’s a blend of urbane amenities – cappuccino, prickly pear mimosas, cozy tables under shade trees – in a rural setting. Owners, siblings and foodies Marina Ardovino and Robert Ardovino are committed to farm-to-table menus and grow their own fruits and vegetables for their restaurant.
The day starts even earlier for Matt and Simon Stong, who have brought over produce from their Luna Eco Farm in Deming, New Mexico, 90 miles away, since 2009.
A former World Bank economist in Washington, D.C., Matt chose to go all-in for organic farming, getting a Ph.D. in agricultural engineering on the way. El Paso’s Whole Foods store used to feature his vegetables, a practice that ended when Amazon Prime took over the store.
“I support local businesses and shopping consciously for healthy foods,” said longtime Ardovino’s market fan Armando Pena. His shopping bag held grass-fed beef, ripe tomatoes and certain hard-to-find yellow chiles.
“Here you can meet the farmers and be good to our neighbors in New Mexico – they are our lifelines for produce,” Pena said.
The largest produce selection came from Alicia Torres and Martin Martinez’s family farm in Mesquite, New Mexico, where green chiles and jars of honey are bestsellers.
George Pouy is another regular, bringing over produce, eggs and farm-raised pork from C&G Farm in Chamberino, New Mexico.
Among the newest vendors is artist Terrance Flores, who brought dozens of his “enamels on panels” showing stunningly vibrant Van Gogh-esque local landscapes.
“For years, I’ve entered Ardovino’s Celebration of the Mountains art exhibit and won awards, so I thought I’d try their market,” he said.
Market manager David Villanueva is the friendly face at the Coffee Stream food trailer serving breakfast sandwiches, crepes and pastries.
While many El Pasoans make a weekly pilgrimage to Ardovino’s at the foot of Mount Cristo Rey, a couple first-timers took a break from shopping to enjoy a pizza from the restaurant’s outdoor wood-burning oven.
“I looked up farmers markets online this morning,” said a former Army drill sergeant who arrived with her colleague at Fort Bliss in August for the 10-month U.S. Army Sergeant Majors Academy course. “We look for the treasures in a new town.”
The Upper Valley market can be found at Mesa Plaza the first two weekends of each month and the Substation at Doniphan and Sunset the last two weekends. The manager and founder, Beto Hernandez, estimates that thousands of people stream through the booths each week.
More vendors and bigger crowds can spread out in the empty parking lot in front of Hobby Lobby, but people love the wonderful architecture and iconic El Paso postcard mural at the Substation.
Billed as a venue for “local makers, artisans, artists, musicians, and culinary innovators,” the bustling marketplace of 70 to 80 vendors boasts a waiting list. Hernandez, marketing and events specialist at Riverbend Development, owners of the Substation shopping area, launched the market with 15 vendors in 2017.
A vendor himself selling his Left-Handed Threads goods at the now closed Downtown Market, Hernandez said food items are popular at the Upper Valley Market. You could eat burgers from a food truck or freeze-dried vegan ice cream from Joshua Mena’s home-based El Paso Freeze Dried Company.
His freeze-dried cactus pieces were popular: “They’re a cooking ingredient or a snack,” he said.
While you’re drinking a bottle of fresh vegetables or fruits from Elizabeth Dipp Metzger’s Pur Cold-Pressed booth or sipping an agua fresca, pick up some golden goodness from the BuzzBee Honey Company in Fabens or a handmade mask by Sandra De La Cruz. Her company, La Bobina, offers a dazzling variety, including a very nice El Paso Strong black mask which will go with whatever you’re wearing.
The Mendoza Mercantile booth is where Katie Mendoza sells beautiful handmade leather goods and luxurious natural soaps and balms. Don’t miss Rafa Perez’s S&B Yard Art collection of colorful wall hangings made of sheet metal recycled from washers, dryers and other appliances.
The huge display of rocks belongs to Adolfo Martinez, who started Zebra Gems 10 years ago and has been with the Upper Valley Market since “day one.” He loves sharing his passion for beautiful stones, which he sets in pendants, rings, cellphone pop-ups and other items.
Dr. Mitch Puschett is a regular at the Market with his wife Cathy and their two poodles.
“It feels a little bit like you’re on a city street and you interact with owners of small stores,” he said. “If you’re about to start a business, this would be a great place to test it out.”