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Berry’s Little Patch : Lifestyle: A gardener extraordinaire grows exotic produce on three acres in New Mexico. The ‘labor of love’ has made her a culinary celebrity.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perhaps nowhere but in trendy Santa Fe is one likely to stumble across a Monday-morning taste test of 13 varieties of organically grown Mexican dried beans.

Then again, perhaps no one other than gardener extraordinaire Elizabeth Berry could persuade 11 of Santa Fe’s trendiest chefs to show up and rate the flavor and marketability of beans at any time on any day.

The sandy-haired dirt farmer raises 51 varieties of tomatoes, 17 types of eggplant and various squash blossoms, haricots verts and chichi chiles, all on a mere three-acre plot of her cliffside ranch outside Abiquiu (pronounced AB-i-cue), 85 miles northwest of Santa Fe.

“I have a real pride,” says Berry, 55, who has been farming only six years. “If it’s not perfect, it doesn’t leave the ranch.”

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In short order, Berry’s artistry in producing exotic perishables has made her a celebrity of sorts in a city that, with four times as many eateries as churches, is regarded as one of America’s temples of good taste.

Indeed, with elegant food preparation increasingly viewed as a fine art among tastemakers nationwide, some say Berry is fast becoming a kind of 1990s’ counterpart to Abiquiu’s legendary artist of an earlier generation--Georgia O’Keeffe.

However, instead of painting nature-inspired masterpieces on canvas, Berry grows her expensive artwork--designer vegetables that command as much as $9 for a head of lettuce--which the monied public stares at in awe, and then consumes.

“She pours her heart and soul into everything,” says Karen Woods, a chef at Rancho Encantado, a ranch resort just north of the city.

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Berry, a tall, wiry mother of five, treats her organic, spring water-fed vegetables more like children than commodities. She is so concerned about her greens, says Mark Miller, founder of the nationally recognized Coyote Cafe, that she has been known to throw tantrums in his kitchen when she believes his employees have not properly stored a lettuce overnight.

Berry also admits to having to restrain herself from chiding diners who don’t eat all of a salad, listed on one Santa Fe menu as “Elizabeth’s Abiquiu Greens.”

“It bothers me if they waste them,” she says. “If I’m in a restaurant and see someone not eating, it’s all I can do not to say, ‘Do you know how hard it is to grow these?’ ”

Loud and occasionally abrasive? Berry pleads guilty.

But hard-working and artistic? No question either.

Berry, a San Diego native who could pass for actress Diane Keaton’s older sister, did not begin raising vegetables until she finished rearing her children in Berkeley. Then, after moving to northern New Mexico with her second husband, former UC Berkeley geology professor Fred Berry, she met the Coyote Cafe’s Miller, a friend of a friend who was seeking financing to open his restaurant.

Miller persuaded Berry to grow native New Mexico vegetables for him, which she wound up peddling to the public when the Coyote did not open on schedule. Her experiences at the Santa Fe Farmers Market left her with a bad aftertaste, she recalls:

“Here were these people with all this money coming down here and saying, ‘Twenty cents for this squash? Oh, that’s too much. I can get it at Safeway.’ I’d say, ‘Look, we picked this all day. We were up at 4 a.m. to pick this.’ It was heartbreaking. I realized I’d better get out of this veggie ghetto.”

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In a city where menus seem as likely to contain pomegranate pancakes as tuna sandwiches, the solution was obvious.

“No one knew what arugula (a peppery salad green) was when I first started selling it. (But) an Italian restaurateur went wild and said he’d buy all of it. That’s when I knew I should go into the restaurant business,” she says.

Since the Coyote opened in 1987, her business has grown steadily, expanding to eight restaurants last year. She says this is just about the limit for her three-acre plot.

In Abiquiu, the growing season lasts only five months, May through September. But it is a grueling five months.

Berry and her leather-skinned ranch foreman, Jose Duran, 61, rise before dawn and do not finish the backbreaking weeding, watering and picking until dinner time. For considerations of flavor and health, they use no pesticides and water the crops only with mountain spring water.

“I want to show that organic vegetables can be grown beautifully,” Berry says. “It just takes tremendous care and expense.”

Because Berry cannot compete in price with larger California growers, she only raises vegetables that are extremely exotic or too fragile to ship. Despite her high prices, she says, the small size of her plot allowed her to gross only $53,000 in 1990.

“It’s a labor of love,” she says. “I don’t make a lot of money, but to me it’s important that the ranch is self-sufficient. Our goal is to make this place pay its way.”

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The ranch also provides her with a sense of identity.

“This is my social life,” she says. “That’s why I’m different than other growers. Most growers deliver and leave. I’m in the kitchen yelling. I baby-sit my vegetables to the end.”

Finally, Berry’s hard work is compensated by her surroundings.

The ranch that she and her husband purchased in 1977 is a piece of paradise, located 17 miles down a dirt road in a lush valley of the Rio Chama wilderness. The view from the tomato field is of 1,000-foot sandstone cliffs that Anasazi Indians once used as lookout towers. Spectacular Van Gogh colors--rust-red cliffs, cobalt-blue skies and emerald forest greens--prevail.

Animal life flourishes, too. Bald eagles perch on cottonwood trees. Jack rabbits hop in the scrub. Cattle graze near the banks of the Chama River. (“Hi, sweetie, hi, darling,” Berry yells as she drives by in her 4-wheel-drive pickup.)

The couple’s only human neighbors live several miles away in a Benedictine monastery.

The Berrys’ Gallina Canyon ranch has no phone or electricity. Still, the couple, married 22 years, does make some concessions to the 20th Century--including a battery-operated boom box that serenades the crops.

“I put it on the roof and I crank out Mozart, Bach, Beethoven,” Berry explains. “I can go for Mendelssohn, and I can do Schubert. But no rock ‘n’ roll--that’s anti-garden music. . . . And they don’t like opera. Well, they do, but it doesn’t fit right. It’s like noise.”

Kathy Kagel, owner of Cafe Pasqual’s, calls Berry’s garden “the most exciting I’ve ever seen.”

“She and Jose and Fred and the natural spring water and northern New Mexico--it all combines, and it is magic. And she is the alchemist,” says Kagel, whose informal-looking restaurant offers such sophisticated breakfast dishes as grilled trout in cornmeal with green chilies and toasted pinons.

Berry is also the delivery person, whose twice-weekly, two-hour solo drive to Santa Fe takes her past both of Georgia O’Keeffe’s old houses. The solitude is shattered when she traipses into the city’s glitzy eateries, her clothes caked with mud.

“She comes walking in, throwing vegetables around, saying, ‘Look, I have these gorgeous yellow plum tomatoes,’ ” says Roger Rice, sous-chef at the upper-crust Santacafe."(Patrons say,) ‘Who is that?’ But it’s very cool. . . . She creates a very good effect . . . especially for those from out of town.”

During the off-season, Berry prepares for summer by researching additional exotics and signing growing contracts with the city’s top restaurants. She also acts as a tireless promoter of open-pollinated seeds, which, unlike hybridized varieties generally available from large seed companies, can be saved and grown the next year.

“In the ‘90s,” she says, “it’s time to start getting the chefs to create dishes for heirloom-variety seeds and get away from hybridization, which is where it’s been so long.

“There are thousands of varieties of beans. . . . If the chefs can create a demand for these wonderful beans, then the public will want to buy them. Then small farmers like myself can grow them (profitably).

“If there isn’t going to be a market for them, they will become extinct.”

To that end, Berry held her recent bean tasting. Supplying the chefs with blindfolds, she asked them to rate the flavor of each bean and consider placing orders with her to grow their favorites.

As in a Dickens novel, they were appropriately named. There was a Lemon, a Root, a Wood and a Rice. And then, of course, there was Berry.

“OK,” she declared, “here’s No. 1. Remember, it’s do you like the taste of (the beans) . . . and which would you order, as opposed to pinto and black turtle wax?”

For the next hour, the cream-of-the-crop cooks rated red beans, black beans, brown beans, purple beans; some were the size of shirt buttons, others the size of horse pills.

By the end of the tasting, two clear favorites had emerged: a light-brown bean grown for years by Duran, the Berry ranch foreman, and a starchy scarlet variety so large that Coyote Cafe chef Mark Kiffin joked, “Can I have a carving station for this?”

Within days, Berry had inked contracts to grow 1,200 pounds of the big beans and 200 pounds of the brown ones. Next, she says, will be a taste test of 10 varieties of fingerling potatoes.

“Elizabeth yells about my staff abusing her vegetables,” says the Coyote’s Miller. “They ‘suffocate’ her vegetables, she says. But buying a head of lettuce at 79 cents that’s three times as large as Elizabeth’s (but) full of water and chemicals is not the thing to do.

“She is one of the people protecting the Earth for all of us. If every community in the United States had five or 10 people like that, we’d be a lot farther down the road.”


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