I first met Sue while on assignment late last summer. Grammy’s Garden was next in the docket for being featured in the print magazine’s Gleanings department, so I emailed Sue to find out when I could find her selling her wares at the farmers market. She sent back her schedule, and that Sunday, I headed off to Heirloom Farmers Market at the Rillito Downs to witness the woman behind Grammy’s Garden in action.
Unfortunately, having never been to a farmers market before, it didn’t even occur to me to double check that Sue would be there before driving 45 minutes to the market. I walked up and down the corridor of vendors’ tents and trucks, but Grammy’s was nowhere in sight. When I followed up with Sue the next day, she explained that she hadn’t come to market because she was too tired that day. My mind was blown — I had never considered that, unlike supermarkets with their hordes of employees, the individual vendors at farmer’s markets are often the only people available to staff their stall, and like any of us, they sometimes need to take a day off.
We did eventually connect, and in my interview with Sue, I discovered a woman who was passionately engaged in connecting local growers with local eaters, working with a network of nearby growers to bring succulent produce to market in addition to her own obsession-inspiring jams and preserves (once you go chile-apricot, you don’t go back!). She didn’t steer away from strong statements or try to sugarcoat her words; Sue dove right into a discussion of the challenges facing small farmers in southern Arizona as large scale operations flee water restrictions in California and elsewhere, opting instead to raid Arizona’s aquifers for growing their water-inefficient crops. While that portion of the conversation didn’t make it into my piece, it did leave me with a distinct impression of a woman who wasn’t afraid to speak the truth as she saw it.
During my month of eating 100% locally sourced food, I came to think of Sue as my very own social media cheerleader — with nearly every post I made on the Local Girl Goes Local Facebook page, I could count on Sue being there to like and add a comment, and it became part of Chad’s and my weekly farmers market outing to leave a little extra time for visiting with Sue and George in the shade of Granny’s canopy. There were perks of getting to know the folks at Grammy’s beyond simply friendly conversation: when George saw me out with my daughter strapped to my chest and my arms heavily laden with bags, he invited me to stash my purchases underneath their table until I was ready to head home, so that I didn’t have to sacrifice my back in order to keep my veggies cool. When I mentioned to Sue how much I was missing butter, having not found any made locally, she immediately pointed me in the direction of a local butter CSA. She was always ready to point out which items in her stall were sourced from within Arizona each week, and had suggestions for which other vendors would have specific local foods available. She kept up with what I was doing for LGGL on a daily basis, and I know beyond a doubt that without Sue’s encouragement, that month of local eating (and blogging) would have been a lot harder to get through. Perhaps most importantly, Sue and George had a strict policy on kids with apples at their stand: every child gets a free apple. My daughter delighted in these apples, always sweet and fresh and able to be gnawed on immediately, and to this day whenever we’re shopping in a grocery store, she cannot understand why I won’t let her do the same with those tempting ruby-gold orbs in the produce section (we always have to wash them first).
This morning, I learned that Sue had passed away last night. My heart breaks for her husband George, for the rest of her family, and for her friends. I only knew Sue through one small sliver of her life, but in that sliver, she taught me more about what eating local can mean for a community than any other seller I’ve encountered at the farmers market. It’s not just about reducing the environmental impact of our food, or supporting our local economy, though both those things are incredibly important. When we choose to engage with and buy directly from local food producers — thus physically and emotionally connecting with our fellow community members — we are actively dismantling the faceless anonymity industrial farming aims to thrust upon us. We can know where our food comes from, we can know the people who produce it, and they can become our friends, even if it’s just for a few minutes every week at the farmers market. I’ve always felt welcome at Tucson’s farmers markets, and Sue Wyckoff and her family’s friendly presence has been a major reason why.