Mexican Families Learning Together
A vining chayote squash sends curling tendrils up the natural support of a fruit tree. Remnant tree branches are lashed together with old pallets to create pergolas over garden plots. Weeds have been put to good use, spread across the pergola, shading tender veggies. Walking the east beds of the Roaring Fork High School Community Garden, one sees Mexican ingenuity at play.
“There is a common misconception that all Mexican immigrants are former farmers,” comments Illene Pevec, a food activist with the nonprofit Fat City Farmers. Pevec sees a disconnect between local Mexican families and the worldwide farm-to-fork movement. Her desire is “to see all families – especially Mexican families – participating in the gardening community, growing their own food and gaining the benefits of food independence. Mexico has the highest rate of diabetes in the world and fresh vegetable consumption is a healthy way to help prevent this.”
Fat City Farmers (FCF) was founded in 2007 by Michael Thompson, Susan Brady and others “to educate a new generation of farmers who nurture the land with organic techniques,” explains Pevec. “We focus on school and community garden work. We developed the large garden and greenhouse at Roaring Fork High School to offer workshops to teachers all over the valley, to integrate gardening activities with meeting Colorado Learning Standards.”
At Roaring Fork High, FCF and Jerome Osentowski of the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute collaborated with agriculture science teacher Hadley Hentschel, breaking ground on a grow-dome greenhouse in 2010. In ensuing seasons, they planted a heritage fruit orchard and community garden plots. Hentschel uses the grow-dome and garden plots to teach juniors and seniors about soil science, the American agriculture system, forest gardening concepts, plant science and plant physiology. The students grab shovels and hoes and experiment in the grow dome and community garden. The school then uses their produce in cafeteria lunches.
But the school’s community garden was barely used during the high growing season. That’s when schools go on summer vacation. How could the group steward the garden during the brief – but intense – growing period of summer?
Fat City Farmers reached out to the Valley Settlement Project (VSP). Founded by George Stranahan’s Manaus Fund, VSP brings immigrant families into the community. Working with both children and parents, VSP hopes to create lasting change for lower-income immigrant families by focusing on school preparedness, improving economic stability and increasing community involvement. El Busesito, sponsored by VSP, is a traveling preschool program that serves lower-income neighborhoods. Fat City Farmers invited Busesito children to tour the garden and invited VSP families to use the gardens. It was a good fit.
Last spring, eight families broke ground at the high school’s community garden. Only two had ever grown food before, and they shared their knowledge with other families. Pevec and Hentschel provided guidance. Many of the seeds and starter plants were donated, including tomatoes and squash plants grown by the ag science students. Growing Food Forward, a garden nonprofit for hunger relief, donated seeds and starter peat pots.
The families arrive in the cooler evening hours after work. “All ages are working together,” Pevec says. “Babies sit in their little bouncy chairs while preschoolers take turns with the mini-shovels. Moms and dads work side by side with older children.”
Adds Hentschel, “It’s been really fun watching the families all summer… lots of gardening! These 5- and 6-year olds are just going at it!”
Each family’s plots add up to a couple hundred square feet. The land is sloped, bisected by an intermittent wetland. Beds range from 10-by-10 to 10-by-20 feet, depending upon the slope. Some straddle the wetland. Some hold fruit trees or native shrubs planted for their nitrogen-fixing capacity, berries or forest role.
The ultimate goal is to teach forest gardening, growing in supportive guilds. VSP wants families to learn to grow nutritious food and to develop food independence. But this year, it was more important to just get them started. “Grow as you know how to grow,” Hentschel chuckles wryly.
Collectively, Pevec and the families grew a “Three Sisters Garden” at the center of all the plots: corn, beans and squash planted in the traditional way. Sue Gray, another local garden activist, donated the corn seed, a traditional variety bred for high altitudes. Cilantro and several varieties of chilies and peppers weave through the family plots, whispering of the Mexican spirit that pervades the garden.
Vegetables of all shapes, size and color glow amid verdant green. Onions, kale, carrots, bell peppers, lettuces and zucchini fill the beds alongside weeds. But the weeds bring life and biodiversity. Bees, butterflies, humming birds, finches and robins fill the air. Snakes slide through grass blades; frogs have begun to move in. “The children are having a ball discovering worms and roly polies,” says Pevec.
At the heart of the garden sit bee hives that provide honey and pollination. Volunteer Don Gunther manages the hives and hasn’t yet involved the community gardeners. He’s pursuing a master gardener certification with a specialization in bee keeping, and he hopes to lead future workshops.
Pevec hopes that Fat City Farmers can put more gardens on school grounds. “We still need more financial support from the school district or a foundation to keep everything going,” she says. “It should be as integrated into education as are school sports, as it supports the good health of all students.”
Next spring, the same eight families will return to garden over the summer. Pevec believes that it’s a way for families to get more involved in school activities that directly serve family health and to grow community simultaneously.
Summer has waned. Much to the delight of the niños, the zucchinis grew to the size of clubs. Pumpkins morphed from green to orange. As they share harvests and ideas, the Mexican families continue to learn: Did the chayote actually ripen before frost? Did the tomatoes do better when partially shaded?
The vegetables and soils have taught them about themselves, about each other and about how to connect to this new place called Carbondale.
Fat City Farmers is seeking social media help and garden volunteers. Their funding comes private donations and grants; consider a tax-deductible donation to Fat City Farmers.