Growing Community Roots on Common Ground
Updated: Feb 7, 2022
Farm Visit: December 2, 2021
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Across from the VH Lassen Elementary School, a large sign “Spaces of Opportunity” announces the 20-acre open field surrounded by residential developments. There are purposely no fences. The space invites neighbors and visitors with several large shade canopies stretched from heavy iron poles to be part of instructional and play areas. Just behind this gathering point is a 1.5-acre community garden. The remaining farmland is then divided into quarter-acre parcels for eleven individual “incubator” farmers. These farmers are mostly immigrants. The only exception is a half-acre in the center designated for Project Roots. Spaces of Opportunity is located in what is commonly referred to as a “food desert”. There are seven Burger King’s in the surrounding 3-mile radius, but there are no grocery stores. Lower-income housing is common in this area.
Amy Simpson, the assistant farmer, arrived with a big smile to give me a tour and cover for Bridget who was making CSA produce deliveries. “I’ve been here since nearly the beginning,” she declared. “Spaces of Opportunity is the place you come to find yourself. Now, I have found myself. My kids ask, “who are you? I explain that I really have found what I am passionate about, what I love. “This is who I am.”
Farm and Food Hub Support Structure
Open Spaces serves a number of functions divided by zones. The canopy serves as a farmer’s market on one evening per month and one morning each week. The playground, adjacent to the community gardens, allows young parents to bring their children and let them play while they work in the garden. Project Roots is its own youth garden. After garden time, the neighborhood youth get to play on “mulch mountain”. Finally, the site’s remaining acreage is divided into quarter-acre plots for incubator farmers. A public restroom, a walk-in cooler, and a greenhouse are common assets shared by all who work there.
For one bed row of a community garden, gardeners pay $5 per month. Because water is becoming increasingly expensive, the fee structure is likely to increase. Farmers have the opportunity to sell their produce at the on-site farmer’s market. “Our Harvest,” serves as a food hub to refrigerate produce and distribute to the right locations. Local growers can store their produce there.
Back in the 1950’s this 20-acre parcel was donated to the Roosevelt School District. At one time they thought they were going to build a high school here, but the plans never eventuated. In 2014, John Wann, a retired Roosevelt principal, saw the vision of how this land could be part of a hands-on environmental studies program - a vital part of children’s education. He wanted to teach children how the food they eat gets to their plates. He also wanted it to be a center for the community. With the help of five nonprofits who shared that vision, John helped broker the deal, a ten-year lease to use the land for community agriculture.
Amy has been involved since 2016. With limited funding, that meant they had to hand dig the canals for flood irrigation. When they first began, water needed to be siphoned from the canal into trenches. Putting in basic farm infrastructure meant adding roads and pathways covered with wood chips. “Our first donation came from Starbucks!” Amy announced. Sprouts Foundation and Desert Botanical Gardens were also a vital part of this initial support.
The farm takes advantage of the local system of canals from SRP, a hydroelectric power company that cools its spent water in canals. Irrigation is done by flooding soil bed channels once a week in the summer and every two weeks in the winter. It takes about two hours to fill these ditches which are then allowed to absorb the water for six more hours.
One of Spaces of Opportunity’s key objectives is to educate farmers. Critical to their success has been employing an experienced farmer from Iraq who knows how to succeed in hot desert conditions. On at least two acres, Hussein Alhamka has demonstrated success for four years now. He is able to answer the questions of the other incubator farmers. He also farms the land that is not claimed by the incubator farmers. He manages the overall infrastructure of the farm including the irrigation, tractor, and cooler. Amy explained, “It’s great to have Hussein because he brings his seeds from Iraq as well as his farming know-how to make crops grow in extreme conditions. One example is the cactus “nopales” which the pods can be harvested and eaten for breakfast. Each farmer seems to bring something new to the farm. Sara brought water tanks and gas-powered pumps to run overhead sprinklers. Most farmers have found their own markets to sell their produce. A quarter-acre ends up to be 20 growing beds each one hundred feet long. Hussein plows and shapes the beds before turning them over to the new farmers.
Farmer Rodney’s Story
Rodney Machokoto is a graduate student at Arizona State University as well as a farmer. A native of Zimbabwe, he is fascinated with social enterprise. He realizes that in his country, because of the political system, nonprofits are not supported. Therefore, he wants to learn how to develop a network of nonprofits in Zimbabwe that support themselves. That’s why his master’s program is focused on community resources and development as well as nonprofit studies. America’s larger companies like Kellogg’s have learned to set up complementary businesses which allow for nonprofits in many towns across the country. That’s been going on since the 1860s. With farming on top of school work, he supports his wife and two boys aged 6 and 5. He observed, “From their farm experience, they have become very present and grounded.” He loves working in the soil. He feels the fundamental good it does not only for his family but also for society.
Farmer Sara’s Story
Sara Hipperson has been farming now for two and a half years, right through COVID. It took her many years working as a general manager for an expanding minerals company to figure out that this work environment wasn’t for her. The company grew from a small, local business, to a state-wide business and then to a $22 million international trade business. Even though she held a trusted position with a high salary, the complexity and work environment got to be too much. At that time she sought balance in her life. That’s when Sara started gardening. The more she did, the more she liked it. Rather than hire more employees, her boss wanted her to work more hours. When she broke out into extreme eczema, it became clearly evident to her there was a problem. She got the ok to take a sabbatical to recover.
She decided to take a few months off in the Philippines. As she experienced the Filipino way of life, she saw how healthy and happy they were. Local food and fresh fish were a big part of their culture. When she came back, her boss wanted her to work more. That’s when she asked herself, “Do I know enough that I could make a living farming?” Within a few weeks, she made up her mind. She took classes at Steadfast Farm from a local farmer where she learned some very practical things about how to run and financially manage a farm. Eric was very “open-book” about it all.
What Sara really likes about farming is to produce a product that is so intrinsically good. She started with a “friends and family” CSA and now sells at a farmer’s market. Sara noted, “I am challenged with my time. In partnership with my husband, I have four and a half days a week to be a mom for my one-year-old. I farm this quarter of an acre eight hours a day Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. My husband notices how much happier I am. Even though it’s a lot of work, and I’m worn out when I get home, I still want to get up in the morning. It’s a good life!” Sara shared. “I have noticed a dramatic improvement in my health and wellness. I have no eczema. I feel better than ever. For my coworkers who remained, seven have left. They prefer a sense of community over a high-paying job.”
Project Roots: Youth Engagement - Food Apartheid
Because of the lack of access to fresh healthy food in this system-afflicted area, most eat out at fast food places or convenience stores. There are no grocery stores in the area. Real food has been withheld from the community for so long that they don’t know how to prepare it. That’s where Project Roots got started. “Let’s educate our youth about food - where it comes from, what it takes to be healthy, and just to learn how to ‘eat the food!’”, Amy declared.
On a half-acre, the youth gather to learn about food and farming. “Some of the youth were ones who came through last year’s gardens and destroyed watermelons,” Amy said. “We met these children and invited them to come work with us on the farm. Some did, and eventually, they brought others. Now we are up to 16 kids from ages five to twelve. Taking this approach we have seen much less vandalism. The youth farmers have become protectors of the farm.” Amy explained.
They meet Wednesday afternoons after school’s early release from 2:00 - 4:30 pm. “We are sure to feed them. Our class is about whatever needs to be done. Last week, for example, we planted fruit trees that were donated. We don’t get too caught up in curriculum. Instead, we teach basic principles: how to take care of ourselves, each other, and the earth.”
The kids also come for two hours on Saturday morning. We open this class up to the community and promote it on social media. Adults work separately for two hours. Kids 12 to 20 come to work and to play. We use mulch in the beds to hold in the moisture. It breaks down into compost. Local landscapers come to drop off wood chips and mulch for free. We use flags to indicate where they should drop their next load. That way they avoid a tipping fee at the landfill, and the carbon material is regenerated into the soil. We teach that with cover crops and tuber roots, there’s no need to till. They learn how to use weeds such as mallow as soil indicators to tell what the soil needs and when it is ready to plant.
Amy further shared, “Our biggest pain point is that too few come to our farmer’s markets. Too few appreciate the value of fresh, local organic food. The question we are trying to answer is ‘How do we reach out to the community in a way that they will engage them and inspire them to eat healthy delicious produce?’“
Bridget Pettis- Professional Basketball Star’s Story
A tall slender woman joined Amy and me in the youth garden by the pallet composter. She introduced herself as Bridget. She had a great basketball playing and coaching career going for her. She played with the Phoenix Mercury team, coached with the Chicago Sky, and then COVID hit. She realized how vulnerable she was. Her health depended on eating whole foods grown locally. An inner voice inside said to her, “Go to the land; go to the soil. Get healthy and help the community heal.”
“So I talk to people to get them to put gardens in their backyards. We need to be aware of the different spaces we have access to plant gardens. It was at a workshop sponsored by Greg Peterson, the urban farmer, that inspired me that I needed to make this life change. I purchased fruit trees from him and planted them.” She affirmed, “If you go to the land, the people are coming. It is the place all people are called to return to”
Amy grew up on a farm in northern Illinois. She shared, “I watched the demise of family farming. It went from growing all our own food at home to none. My grandmother died of cancer. Illinois’ topsoil went from two feet of loam to all sand. The “new” industrial farming extracted all the carbon from the soil. The forests I used to play in as a child are now all gone. Now my parents frequently experience windstorms there.
Amy loves spending her days at the farm. She is here a lot, so gardeners and farmers alike can just ask her questions. Amy particularly enjoys the garden education experience. “My passion is community building - inviting people to the soil reminds us of our interdependence and connection to all of creation,” she said.
Sharing Abundance and Building Community
On the way out of the farm, I met a couple from Haiti who were working on their community plot. “It’s such a blessing to have land like this. We live in a small apartment,” he explained. Amy keeps connected with the community gardeners through Slack - a group messaging app. We have 19 people that are on our waiting list for a plot. Those who don’t have a plot often choose to volunteer on Thursday mornings.
We learn to trade and share our abundance here. For example, Amy works for Hussein in exchange for vegetables to make pickles. The Arizona Worm Farm, a neighboring farm supports the Project Roots through donated compost, worm castings, and seedlings. Owner Zach Brooks fully supports what we are doing and has been so generous. We pay for things when we can. It’s understood that we each give what we can for the benefit of all. Amy feels that sense of community deeply. “I’ve seen it happen a dozen times; people come and find a fit here and then grow up and leave. It’s hard to see people go, but I’ve learned to celebrate their adventure.”
Author: Farmer Karl