Salman raspberry fields a slice of ‘heaven’

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

LA CUEVA – When Michael Weathers gazes down the rows of leafy, green plants that make up the Salman Raspberry Ranch, you can almost see the tension dissolve into the muddy ground under his feet.

“When I’m out here by myself, it feels so good,” he said. “I feel alive. No memories. This is heaven.”

Weathers, the ranch foreman, was talking this past Wednesday morning. And at that time, the ranch, in this small community 6 miles southeast of Mora, did feel something like the heaven many of us imagine. Certainly, there were plenty of clouds, a cooling, soothing presence and a reminder of the abundant rain that has visited the ranch this year.

Weathers will have to put that alone time he treasures so much on hold for a while. Saturday marked the start of U Pick It season at the Salman Ranch. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays until the first killing frost, usually in October, people can wander through the field, picking their own raspberries at $6 per pound.

That’s OK with Weathers. He likes that part of his job, too. He gets a charge out of watching people enjoy a slice of the farming life that gives him pleasure almost every day.

“People come in here with canes and wheelchairs and schools bring kids in,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the weather’s like, cold or hot, people are laughing and talking and kids are running around here and having fun.”

He said some of the kids are pretty good at picking raspberries, which is not as easy as it might sound because berries have a way of hiding under the leaves of the plants.

Looking out again over the green rows, he nodded with satisfaction.

“There’s going to be plenty of berries this year,” he said.

Frances Salman Koenig, manager of the ranch and a member of the family that owns it, agrees.

“I think the peak (for the raspberries) is going to be Labor Day,” she said. “From Labor Day on, it should be gorgeous. The field is closed on Mondays to let it rest. But we’re open every other day. It’s great to come during the week, if you can, because the field is quieter. What’s special about the place is that families love it. And we allow dogs in the field if people keep them on a leash.”

Salman Raspberry Ranch employee Rafael Galabiz picks raspberries last week in the ranch fields in La Cueva, a community six miles southeast of Mora. Saturday marked the start of U Pick It Season at the ranch. From now until the first killing frost, usually in October, people can pick raspberries in the Salman Ranch field at a cost of $6 a pound. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Salman Raspberry Ranch employee Rafael Galabiz picks raspberries last week in the ranch fields in La Cueva, a community six miles southeast of Mora. Saturday marked the start of U Pick It Season at the ranch. From now until the first killing frost, usually in October, people can pick raspberries in the Salman Ranch field at a cost of $6 a pound. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Koenig’s father, Col. William Salman, came to the United States from Russia. He worked his way up from a stevedore’s job on the docks of Houston to ownership of his own steamship line. During World War II, Col. Salman served with the Army Transportation Corps and was appointed commander of the Port of Le Havre in France, the largest port in the European Theater of Operations.

Salman was Jewish. Most of his family still lived in Europe at the start of World War II, and many of them, including his mother and father, were victims of the Holocaust, perishing in prison camps. Prompted by that horror to find the safest place possible for his wife and children, Salman started buying the acreage that would become the Salman Ranch in the 1940s. He moved his family to the ranch in 1950 and started raising cattle, grains and alfalfa.

Col. Salman died in 1988. His family, which, in addition to daughter Frances, included sons David, a New Mexico legislator from 1969-1978, and William introduced raspberries to the ranch in 1985 and set the business on the course it follows to this day.

But the history of this place reaches much deeper into the past, back to 1835 when Vincente Romero and his wife, Josefa, were among the 76 original grantees of the 827,621-acre Mora Land Grant. Vincente and Josefa’s share of the grant is at the heart of what is now the Salman Ranch.

It’s said that in his early days, Vincente Romero was a shepherd and that La Cueva, Spanish for “the cave,” got its name from the fact that he slept in a cave during his sheepherding years.

Vincente became a successful farmer and businessman, establishing the irrigation system that feeds water into the ranch’s fields to this day, starting a mercantile store that also served as the village post office and building and operating a grist mill.

The mercantile building, parts of which date back to the 19th century, now houses the Salman Ranch Store, open year-round to sell the ranch’s raspberries and products – jams, toppings, vinegar – made from them. The grist mill, boarded up now, stands behind the store.

Over near the raspberry fields is the Romero-Salman Hacienda, an 8,000-square-foot adobe home constructed in the Monterrey Peninsula Territorial style. The southwest wing of the house was built in the late 1830s, the second floor in 1863. A bell on the west side of the house was used in the 1800s to warn villagers when hostile Indians were nearby.

The house, the mercantile store and the mill have been designated National Historic Sites.

San Rafael Mission Church, built in the middle of the 19th century, is also on the ranch. It’s locked now, except for special occasions, but you can walk around it and peer into the windows.

Weathers’ mother and father were married in the church. He and his brothers and sisters grew up near the ranch, and he, his mother and some of his siblings still live on or near their old home place. He said that when he was young, the raspberry fields were an orchard. He and his brothers used to climb into the orchard trees and go home with apples in their pockets.

Those are the good memories, the ones he clings to. The memories he tries to forget when he’s in the raspberry fields by himself are of more recent vintage – the year as a combat infantryman in Vietnam, his years as a guard in the New Mexico prison system.

Memories like that fade in the life that vibrates around him here – the raspberry plants rolling away toward cottonwood trees and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the busy gopher that keeps popping up out of its network of holes to pull green and leafy things back down with him, the deer tracks in the mud.

Weathers said at least five deer and one big bull elk have been grazing in the raspberry fields this year.

“They like it when we’re not here,” he said. “The deer like the tops of the plants. That’s the sweetest part, probably. We’ve had bears in the field, too. We found one just sitting in the field, picking berries. He was picking the good ones, too.”

Koenig said hundreds of people come to the U Pick It field each year and many of them have made it an annual tradition.

“We’ve had people coming here for 25 years, since the U Pick It field opened,” she said. “They brought their children and now they’re bringing their grandchildren.”

They come for the raspberries, of course, but also for the connection to the land, the nature and the history. And for the simple satisfaction of just being here.

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