Elizabeth Sebastian Defied Conventions
to Diversify Northern New Mexico’s Palate
By Willy Carleton · Photos by Stephanie Cameron
Windows down, we drift out of cell phone service and slowly follow the rippling Chama River upstream through yellow-leaved cottonwoods and rust-red oaks. Ancient amphitheatres and white- and red-striated cliffs tower on the horizon as a cloud of dust trails us. The immense quiet of the expansive canyon is broken only by the rocks beneath our tires. At the end of the sixteen-mile dirt road we find a small adobe house beside a vibrant garden with the initials “EB” carved into the gate. We’ve arrived at the Gallina Canyon Ranch, the home of Elizabeth Sebastian, formally known as Elizabeth Berry and known to others simply as the Bean Queen of New Mexico, who from this remote haven started one of the region’s most innovative and successful market farms that ran from 1986 to 2001.
With a purple streak in her silver hair and a glow in her eye, Sebastian at eighty-one exudes a congenial warmth, a passion for growing vegetables, and an unmistakable fun-loving spirit. Over the course of the afternoon, she casually rattles off stories of immensely profitable seasons, dinners with celebrity chefs, a farm visit from Martha Stewart, and everyday moments of joy in the field that could inspire admiration, respect, and perhaps envy, in any fellow farmer. As a vegetable grower myself, I am eager to glean a few insights into how she got started, what sustained her, and what advice she might offer current growers pursuing a farming career.
For Sebastian, the farming life began at age fifty, in 1985, when she introduced herself to her new neighbor in Santa Fe, chef Mark Miller. A California native who had split time between Santa Fe and the remote Gallina Canyon Ranch for several years prior, Sebastian told him about her land and offered to grow vegetables for his new restaurant, Coyote Café. Without access to reliable local produce, Miller seized the opportunity: he gave her a list of vegetables he wanted her to grow and, after she pressed her case, even agreed to pay her five hundred dollars up front. “I was lost,” she reflects of her life before farming, but that initial conversation with Miller, she explains, “changed my life forever.”
As with all beginning farmers, the learning curve was steep. “I had no idea how to grow that stuff,” she admits. She met José Duran, originally from Guadalajara, who began to teach her some growing methods and helped her at the farm for eighteen years. The first year was a success. She made five thousand dollars, which she put towards buying a grand piano for the remote ranch. Working closely with several chefs, including Miller, she developed a crop plan that included many rare varieties of vegetables. She contacted Seed Savers Exchange, in Decorah, Iowa, and grew out six hundred varieties of their rare and, in some cases, endangered bean varieties. She experimented with many other vegetables and at one point planted eighty-two varieties of eggplant. Her formula for success did not emphasize maximum yields (though her yields hardly suffered), but rather maximum diversity and quality. Decades before the local-food craze fully hit the mainstream, she was producing large amounts of high-quality, rare-variety vegetables that local chefs seeking the best-tasting ingredients could not otherwise source.
The farm grew immensely over fifteen years. At its peak size, she employed fourteen workers, cultivated an additional ten acres in Abiquiu, and every day filled three hundred square feet of refrigerated space on the farm to store her produce. She supplied produce primarily to local restaurants and farmers markets, and once grossed $375,000 in a four-month period. “We were making money like crazy,” she recalls with an almost disbelieving laugh.
A key moment in her farming career came in 1994, when she met her husband, Andrew Sebastian. He was twenty-one, she was fifty-nine. Previously married twice, she had “always believed in true love” but had never found it. “And then I met Andrew. He’s the true love of my life.” Working together, the farm grew in both size and profit margin. The success, however, had one drawback. “I never had trouble farming as a woman, and we got along with all our neighbors,” Sebastian recalls, “but the other farmers at the market just hated our guts.” Several approached her clients and tried to undercut her. “The other farmers were so jealous.”
Many factors accounted for the farm’s success. Sebastian had an audacious willingness to experiment (“She wasn’t about to be told what couldn’t be grown in New Mexico,” Miller explains), she worked exceedingly hard (“We would be up for forty-eight hours without sleeping,” she recalls), and she did not sacrifice quality for quantity. Yet perhaps most importantly, she managed to enjoy herself as she did it. She has many fond memories of farm merriment, from everyday moments such as playing classical music for her plants to more singular events like hosting farm dinners for local chefs (no spouses allowed!). Often, her enjoyment derived from an irreverence for conventions. Her face especially lights up as she recalls how, because she charged a set price for bags of greens at the farmers market, she and Andrew would don plastic pig noses whenever a customer greedily packed down and over-stuffed their bags with greens. “It shamed them,” explains Andrew with a wry smile. “It was so much fun!” adds Elizabeth.
Strong relationships with chefs also proved key to the farm’s success. Sebastian often met with chefs in the winter, seed catalog in hand, and demanded verbal contracts from every chef she worked with. In response to her dedication to providing consistent, high-quality food just as they wanted it, chefs consistently bought large quantities. Some chefs did even more. Mark Miller, for example, not only supported her through his restaurant purchases but also occasionally took her to events such as Meals on Wheels Celebrity Chef Balls in Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles to meet prominent chefs. Today, Miller keeps in touch and remembers to send her a note every year on her birthday. His appreciation for her work has not diminished after all these years. “The Coyote Café’s success was very dependent on Elizabeth, and her success was dependent on the Coyote Café,” he explains. “She helped us build a monument to the taste and cuisines of Southwest culture.”
For Miller, the working relationship between Sebastian and the Coyote Café provided a model that contemporary farmers and chefs have thus far failed to fully maintain. “Her farming legacy is not being kept up,” laments Miller. “When is the last time you saw a farmer with one hundred varieties of beans at the farmers market?” In Miller’s view, however, the main problem is not a lack of good farmers, but a lack of chefs willing to fully commit to their farmers. “We [at Coyote Café] incorporated her into the life of the restaurant,” Miller explains. He worked closely with her in the off-season to develop a crop plan; he agreed to assume some of the financial risk in case of crop failure; and he cooked her meals in the restaurant to demonstrate how the vegetables tasted at varying stages of their life cycle. For Miller, being a good chef means actively bringing farmers into the discussion “about identity, sense of place and history, and the meaning of food, flavor, and dining in our society.” A strong culinary philosophy, Miller insists, should go much further than simply supporting local farmers when it is easy or convenient; it requires working closely with farmers year-round and bearing some of their risk.
Sebastian hung up her farming hat in 2001, much to the distress of many local chefs. “When I started the The Compound I went to [Elizabeth] and said, okay, I’m ready for you,” Mark Kiffin recalls, “And she told me she had retired. I wanted to kill her! Where would I find the best arugula now?” Today, the Sebastians raise fifty head of cattle and run a small cabin rental business at the ranch. From May through October, they rent out two cabins, as well as an extravagant glamping pad, and supply fresh eggs and produce from their half-acre garden for cabin guests. In addition to hundreds of acres of private ranch land and the adjoining wilderness areas, the ranch offers kayaks for the river, a jungle gym and swings for children, and a large stock tank, positioned in an ancient pit-house, that serves as a summer swimming hole. Repeat customers and honeymooners often find a bottle of Champagne waiting in their cabins. The ranch also hosts retreats. Finding a more beautiful canyon to spend a few nights, or a few weeks, seems hard to imagine.
Though the long days (and sometimes nights) of producing large amounts of produce are behind her, Sebastian still grows out several varieties of rare beans and her garden brims with well-tended produce. Visitors’ meals at the ranch thus contain small reminders of an important historical farm. Sebastian’s farming career, now largely unfamiliar to many younger farmers and chefs in the region, helped diversify northern New Mexico’s palate and still provides valuable lessons to the next generation of New Mexico farmers, chefs, and local food advocates.