It seems everywhere you turn in Ajo, there’s another garden.
There’s a garden for WIC clients at the health clinic. There’s a garden at the elementary school. There’s a community garden over near Marcela’s off Route 85, a market garden tucked into the neighborhood on McKinley Street, and two gardens at the Curley School.
Behind Ajo’s sole beer and burger joint, 100 Estrellas, clusters of cilantro peek happily out of a raised bed.
And at St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, pea shoots curl up from a cast-off toilet tank. A tomato plant rests fashionably in a pair of upright, soil-filled jeans, which are clipped vertically to the chain link fence with bungee cords and a pair of bright red, yellow, and blue suspenders.
There are more gardens, of course, but let’s stop there.
The gardens are perhaps the most visible proof of the food system transformation occurring in Ajo, a town that for most of its history has been referred to as a “food desert.” Established in 1918 as a mining town, in a region with an average annual rainfall of seven inches, Ajo has always relied on food imported from elsewhere. The town flourished alongside Phelps Dodge’s New Cornelia copper mine for more than 60 years, reaching a boomtown population peak of 10,000. When the mine closed in 1985, however, the town slowly withered.
Today, the population in Ajo hovers around 3,300. Unemployment tends to be twice the rate of Tucson or Phoenix, and half of Ajo’s working age adults are not in the labor force. Highway 85, as it threads through town, is lined with slumping houses, boarded-up restaurants, and chipping paint. Obesity, diabetes, and food insecurity rates are high. Just 40 miles north of the Mexican border, the green-and-white trucks of Border Patrol agents wait in every pullout south of town.
“I think people can make a snap judgment driving down the road,” said Ajo community artist Morgana Wallace-Cooper. “You might blink and miss it. Or you might look out and see a derelict house. What people see on the main road isn’t a reflection of what’s actually happening here, though. It’s a vibrant town.”
That vibrance is readily apparent in the work of the Ajo Regional Food Partnership (ARFP), a group of organizations dedicated to creating a more sustainable local food system in the rural Ajo region. In 2011, the collaboration received $225,000 in funding from the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. It has since leveraged funding from other sources to begin building, from the ground up, a community food system—from production (gardens and farms) to education (food and nutrition programs) to preparation (prepared food sales, microbusiness development, and cooking demonstrations) to markets.
It’s hard to say where the change began. In 2009, when the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona approached the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) with a request for collaborative funding proposals, Ajo’s local food movement already had legs. The Ajo Community Garden Consortium had developed its first plots in the old Curley Elementary School playground in 2007. In 2008, Nina Altschul founded Ajo Community Supported Agriculture (now the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture) when neighbors talked about the lack of local, organic produce available in town.
Altschul connected the CSA with Crooked Sky Farms in Phoenix, the closest farm to Ajo, and each week a member drove the 100 miles to pick up shares. Eventually, Ajo CSA members began holding gardening workshops and food demonstrations, establishing their own gardens for local shares, and selling produce at the farmers’ market.
With so many ideas and projects already on the table, the Ajo Regional Food Partnership’s task was to coordinate collaborations that could accomplish more than any individual organization or group could alone. As its first step, the ARFP tackled infrastructure, removing asphalt from proposed garden sites, transporting dirt from Tucson, installing fencing, and purchasing a chipper to build rich soil.
“We’re in this for life,” Altschul said. “I’ve seen over and over how a group of people with a good idea can go out and make a change.”
On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, the courtyard of Ajo Elementary fills with students. They plop down on hay bales or crouch beside vegetable beds. They get their fingers dirty. They plant seeds. They discuss a worm’s four hearts, or pollination in the Sonoran Desert.
Although the first school garden program in the Ajo Unified School District began in 2008, only five classes had access to the garden. It wasn’t until this school year that gardening became compulsory for all students in prekindergarten through seventh grade.
“The first year, the kids were a little slow getting into the garden and the teachers were incredibly resistant,” said Fran Driver, an Ajo Unified School District (AUSD) parent and CEO of Desert Senita Community Health Clinic, which partners with the school in the program. “The second year, the kids were much more zealous and the teachers were incredibly resistant. But eventually it got to where it wasn’t a chore; it was actually kind of fun.”
Melanie Daniel, AUSD’s garden program director, said classes in the garden are 45 to 55 minutes long. Students typically rotate between three stations, two of which are hands-on and facilitated by volunteers or interns. At the third station, Daniel teaches a short academic lesson—the anatomy of a bee, for instance. Margot Bisoll of Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge visits monthly to teach the youth about pollination and local wildlife. “We relate it to the Sonoran Desert, to Ajo, to the food they’re tasting. The kids are game to try anything,” said Bisoll.
“We end every class with a food tasting,” said Daniel, her eyes gleaming. “Always local. But this coming Monday will be the first time the students get to taste something they’ve grown.”
Although Daniel is proud that the program helps students achieve Arizona state standards in Sciences and Social Sciences—she’ll sometimes see her handouts up in other teachers’ classrooms—she said the most important part of the program goes beyond individual skills. “I want the kids to have a feeling of empowerment that they’re not dependent on the trucks coming in,” she said. “It’s pretty special when a student starts lighting up, saying, ‘Oh! It’s garden day.’”
As local food projects were ramping up all over Ajo, over on Morondo Avenue, Gayle Weyers had a vision.
The big, sprawling white house across the alley from her home had been empty for several years, neglected since one of its occupants passed away and the other moved to a nursing home in Phoenix. “I kept looking at it with such sadness,” Weyers said.
She began scheming. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, she thought, if she and her husband Don could purchase the lot and bulldoze the house? “I started to dream about a garden up there, and fruit trees, and terracing the hillside,” Weyers said. But when she asked the owner of the lot, he said no—he wasn’t ready to part with the property.
She kept asking.
Two years later, he agreed. The Weyerses purchased the lot on November 9, 2010. By Christmas, the house was demolished, in what Gayle referred to as “the opposite of a barn-raising. Friends came, everybody came,” she said. “We recycled everything we could—even the insulation, the pipes, the plywood, the trusses on the roof.” By January, they’d planted the first five trees, and Don began carving vegetable beds with a pickaxe.
Loma Bonita—Spanish for “pretty hill”—got its first major boost in the fall of 2011, when the Weyerses received a $6,000 grant from PRO Neighborhoods and the Pima County Health Department to complete terracing, stabilization, and fencing. The garden now includes three community beds, a chicken coop, several overflowing compost heaps, and endless tangles of flowers, fruit trees, and vegetables. Big beige gourds hang from the fence; small curls of dry wood crown the fence’s top prongs. Atop the site, where old concrete stairs still protrude from the ground, the Weyerses have built a thatched-roof ramada from railroad ties and dried palm leaves. It’s the perfect place to sit and have coffee, looking out over Ajo.
“It has truly been a neighborhood project,” Gayle said, “with lots of folks pitching in and stopping by to talk.” Pitching in goes both ways: The Weyerses give away extra produce, offer the community beds with water free of charge, and keep the bottom gate unlocked so neighbors can drop off compost.
Gayle and Don recently began work on Loma Bonita East, an empty plot of land less than a block away, which a community member offered them. Gayle hopes the plot will eventually contain four robust beds—one for them, and three for neighbors. She is also busy maintaining a demonstration garden down at St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, where she is growing carrots in a raised pallet bed—“To show old people they can garden standing up!” she tells me. (She’s responsible for the sweet peas in the toilet tank and the tomato plant-in-pants, as well.)
“This is like a second career for both of us,” Gayle said. “Our kids have come here, they love it, and they’re taking back organic gardening for their children.”
In what used to be a gravel lot bursting with Bermuda grass, two young men tussle an irrigation line into place. One wears a camouflage hoodie; the other, a black bandana with small white skulls. Behind them, neat rows of radish greens and purple lettuce spill out of the dark soil. A fruit tree rests in a deep hole. The men jostle the tube carefully, glancing up at one another to coordinate their movements.
The young men are Anthony Garcia and Bobby Narcho, and they’re part of a job-training program called Get Going, Get Growing, known around town as the 4Gs. It’s perhaps the best illustration of Ajo’s large-scale collaborations around food: The 4Gs are trained and organized by ISDA, but funding comes through the Ajo Regional Food Partnership, and they operate as a sort of roving garden support team, working on plots all over Ajo.
“When the partnership got started, after the second or third year they realized the volunteer base wasn’t enough for all the projects,” said Christine Johnson, the 4Gs’ Youth Program Coordinator. In a town with high unemployment and low prospects for youth advancement, the solution was simple: Hire help. Altschul proposed a gardening-based youth-empowerment program to Tracy Taft, the executive director of ISDA, and after the two designed a grant through the ARFP, the first round of youth (ages 17-25) began the program in early 2013.
“I saw it as a capacity-building program,” Altschul said. “Building teamwork, articulation skills. Seeing the results of your work. For a youth to put a seed in the ground and three weeks later pull out a radish is very powerful. Sometimes we need to see the results of our work.”
Most of the 4Gs don’t come to the program with much gardening knowledge, and more often than not, this is their first job. That’s okay, said ISDA’s Director of Economic Development Programs, Aaron Cooper. “We’re teaching basic core soft skills,” he said. “Can you show up on time? Can you work while you’re there? Can you be responsible? Can you communicate professionally? Some of them may decide this agriculture stuff is really where they want to go with their careers, but we don’t think that will be everyone, and we’re fine with that.”
For those who do take to local food work, Cooper said, the position may lead them further into the field. “The other vision is that it’s a mentor connection,” he said. “They’re getting to work with people throughout the community. If, say, the community courtyard garden really takes off, then Nina’s already worked with a few of them, and she may think, ‘Hey, here’s an employment opportunity. I want them to come work with me, I’ve already worked with them.’”
Most of the 4Gs’ work is predictable: digging holes, moving rocks, turning soil, planting, composting. The 4Gs help Melanie Daniel at the Ajo Edible Schoolyard Project, work with Morgana Wallace-Cooper on community art installments, man booths at local festivals, and tackle one-time projects. (The 4Gs cite shoveling a pile of donated manure as one of their favorites projects; Narcho showed me a music video he put together of fellow intern Kyle Watkins digging into the brown pile.) The 4Gs also help unload shipments of food from the Tucson Food Bank, including handing out donated produce from gardens across the community.
These days, there are five interns on the team, and the success stories are accumulating. One former 4G member now works maintenance for a local hotel. Intern Abby Morris has advanced so that she now can supervise half of the team. She’s worked for the program since February, and recently applied for a position as the Desert Senita Community Garden Coordinator, she tells me shyly. Her seven-year-old daughter, who often accompanies her to the work site, now has her own garden.
Narcho hopes to one day compose soundtracks for movies. “My plan B is welding,” he said. For now, though, “it’s cool to see that stuff grow from a seed into a beautiful, beautiful plant.”
At the Curley School campus, the sounds of hammers ring out. Drywall scraps, closet doors, and salvaged chalkboards lean against the walls of the old elementary school, where a team of local apprentices are transforming classrooms into guest bedrooms.
The construction is ISDA’s final stage of renovation at the Curley School, a seven-acre educational campus at the heart of Ajo. The elegant two-story high school, built in 1919, towers over town, with a smooth, high brown dome and distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Empty for years after the mine closed and the population plummeted, ISDA purchased the property in 2003 as part of their arts-based economic recovery programs. In 2007 they re-opened the renovated high school as apartments for an artist residency program.
The former Curley Elementary School is next. If all goes as planned, by the end of next year the horseshoe of classrooms will be an international retreat center. Twenty-one bed and bath units will open onto the center courtyard where Ajo CSA’s Farm Ajo flourishes. And the pomegranate trees, chicken palace, and loamy vegetable beds will feed the guests.
To Ajo’s local food advocates, perhaps the most exciting part of the retreat center is a new commercial kitchen, which, pending inspections, will allow guests to eat local during their stay. The commercial kitchen also functions as a small business incubator, said ISDA’s Aaron Cooper, “if people came up with [value-added] products or something else we’ve identified as really marketable.”
Gayle Weyers is optimistic about using the kitchen to capitalize on the area’s robust mesquite pod harvests. “We purchased a hand-grinder, and we’ve collected dried mesquite pods, and we’re grinding those pods into mesquite meal or mesquite flour, which is quite nutritious, non-gluten, and delicious,” Weyers said.
ISDA Maintenance Manager and Ajo native Adrian Vega sees this export model as essential to the revitalization effort. “We can’t expect everybody to come here,” he told me in the courtyard. Vega is working with winter resident John Cox to recover an old beekeeping practice in the valley, and envisions Ajo products like honey on the shelves in Tucson, Phoenix, and beyond. And successful specialty food businesses, Cooper told me, may create a job market for 4G interns to step into.
“Youth retention has definitely been an issue,” Cooper said. “Certainly youth who go on to tertiary education have a tough time finding a space to come back to. So we’ve certainly been looking for ways—how do we support entrepreneurship? How do we support alternative modes of employment?”
To Altschul, these jobs are essential to the long-term success of the local food projects, inviting a wider portion of the community into the dialogue. “When we pay people, we invest in people,” Altschul said. “Our work here is really to change the food culture.”
“It’s important that local food be available to everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, income. Local food movements can often turn into a privileged people’s culture,” Altschul said. “If you build a strong network, then the network will sustain itself.” ✜
Kati Standefer is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona, where she teaches creative writing and composition.