When We Grow Our Food, Our Community Grows
November in Tucson, Arizona, signals a change in season. The intense summer sun has relaxed, and while we wait for the winter rains, people, plants and animals reach a place of contented wellbeing. We find joy in the warm soft brightness of an autumn day in the desert.
On November 9, Saturday afternoon, Michael and I made our way to the south of town to see what was happening at the Community Food Bank’s second annual Fiesta Otoño, Fall Farm Festival, at Las Milpitas de Cottonwood. It was a beautiful afternoon for exploring.
Claiming about 8 acres of ground on the west bank of the Santa Cruz River wash, Las Milpitas de Cottonwood appears as an oasis in the surrounding desert. And it stands as a reminder: people have been farming along the Santa Cruz River for thousands of years.
It is often hard to imagine, living in 2013 in Tucson, finding the desert ground so dry and unforgiving, that there used to be water in the rivers that course through this region. The Santa Cruz River has its headwaters in Arizona southeast of Patagonia and flows south into Mexico before heading north toward the Gila River, which joins the Colorado River traveling to the Sea of Cortez.
Archeologists working along the Santa Cruz have found evidence of agricultural settlements dating from about 1000 B.C. , and when the Europeans arrived in the 16th century they enountered Pima and Tohono O’odham settlements in the Tucson valley. Those historic farmers irrigated their desert plantings with water from the Santa Cruz, but now there isn’t much water in the river, and by the time it reaches Tucson, the Santa Cruz is rarely wet.
The decline of this river is recent; it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that water began to disappear from the Santa Cruz. We have friends who remember water in the river; now it is a great dry wash, part of the urban desert landscape of Tucson.
Modern irrigation systems, however, don’t rely on the river, and modern times are seeing urban farms with modern irrigations systems take root even in this desert city. (see: Tucson Village Farm, River Road Gardens )
For over a decade the Las Milpitas acreage has been the site of urban farm projects. In the late 1990’s the acreage was called the Farmacy Garden, and it was tended by participants in a medical services social organization promoting garden work with their vision of holistic community health.
That garden project ended, and about a year later, in 2006, Tucson’s City High School began working the site, an exciting step in their organizational commitment to urban farming. Their vision was bigger than a simple school project, and they joined forces with Pima County and the Community Food Bank and in 2011 these organizations jointly inaugurated Las Milpitas de Cottonwood, the urban farm that today glows with life in the desert of southern Tucson.
The glow is more than just the green of irrigated vegetables. It comes as well from the intentions and energy of the community members who take care of the land. After a series of open community visioning meetings, a group of students from City High put in a summer’s work laying the foundations of the farm. And many people interested in food, healthy agriculture and urban farming have increasingly become involved in the project. City High continues to grow in a section of the garden, and other garden beds are worked by families who enjoy the great pleasure of growing their own food in a community setting where cooperation serves all.
As well as the cultivated beds, the farm site now includes demonstration and production field rows, compost piles, a greenhouse, chicken house, water harvesting system, shade structures, and trees, composting toilet facilities, and labeled plantings of native perennials. The whole project is a grand exploration of growing food in the desert, in an urban setting, during years of prolonged regional drought.
In a 2010-2012 report titled “Putting Prevention to Work” the Pima County Health Department issued this statement:
The prevalence of inexpensive, calorie-dense foods that lack sufficient nutrient balance for healthy living can lead to poor eating choices – or worse yet, become the only eating choices available to some residents. Data from 2010 shows that more than 240,000 Tucsonans live at or below the federal poverty level, often resulting in uncertainty over where the next meal will come from, let alone whether or not it will be healthy. The Pima County Health Department partnered with the Community Food Resource Center (CFRC) at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona (CFB) to build a community where all people at all times have access to sufficient food for a healthy life, creating a food-secure community.”
Las Milpitas de Cottonwood is witness to the will behind those words. And for the afternoon of the festival, there was music, face-painting, food, speeches and educational entertainment promoting organic, local and sustainable agriculture, beekeeping, water harvesting, and wild native food.
The Pima County Public Library had a presence at the Farm Festival — a display promoting seeds, with the ingredients for making mud balls, bola de semillas, in a special mold that made the process an artistic experience.
Late fall, just before the Winter rains begin, is a perfect time to set out seed balls of wild flower seed. The gentle Winter rains will “melt” the clay and the seeds that were bound in the ball will scatter and possibly grow.
On the table at the Farm Festival were small containers of native plant remnants – primarily seeds or seed pods, and a bowl of local mud mixed with local wildflower seeds. We patted the mixture into the face-like mold, unmolded the mud and then decorated it with the supplied plant materials.
Leaving our creations on the table to dry with the day’s production, we couldn’t help but smile at the zany good nature beaming from the table – so many possibilities waiting in the seeds!
The Pima County Library started lending seeds in 2012 and is one of a growing number of libraries in the U.S. that have joined the Seed Library movement.
Because seed saving is part of our heritage and traditions, it is one way we can come together as a community. When we grow food, our community grows.”
— Seed Library brochure
The community collaboration at Las Milpitas de Cottonwood is a living example of that growing idea.