The Valencia SWCD’s East Valencia Urban Gardens Program (EVUGP), serving the East Mesa of the county, encourages greater access to healthy foods, thriving economies, resilience to climate change and conservation of water and soil resources. It aims to increase knowledge and increase local food production through providing workshops in demonstration gardens, youth learning opportunities and incentives for starting or increasing production of home gardens and farms.
The East Mesa is an underserved food desert located south of Albuquerque of roughly 10,000 residents, where over 30% of children live in poverty and where many expressed difficulty in finding funds to pay for gas to drive to the closest grocery store. Some 31% of youth ages 12-17 years old expressed feeling sad or hopeless. According to the 2015 Census 58% of the population is Latino or Hispanic, 6% Native American and 2% African-American. The EVUGP is designed to holistically support this underserved community through the garden program.
The EVUGP started two community demonstration gardens with 150 hands-on activities, led eight different workshops and community events and facilitated three consensus-style community meetings. Over 80 people participated in the community meetings. There were multiple kids and youth groups working and visiting the gardens including a weekly kids’ class, a youth service work group four times per week, a church youth group once a week and visitors from groups like the Cub Scouts. All activities were bilingual English and Spanish in order to reach the whole community.
A variety of sustainable gardening methods were explored at the demonstration gardens to increase soil organic matter, conserve water and grow produce effectively in an arid and dry climate. These practices included heavy mulching, deep watering in ditches, adding composted manure and leaves to soil, composting, creating a native plant wind block, and harvesting water from the community center to use in one demonstration garden.
Many people believe the area is too hot and dry with poor soils to grow food, but in the demonstration gardens community members successfully grew corn, squash, beans, watermelons, cantaloupe, spinach, kale, broccoli, bell peppers, green and red chiles, carrots, potatoes, onions, strawberries and more. Many crop varieties are native or naturalized to the Southwest climate and culturally important to the community. These include multiple native or naturalized varieties of each of watermelons, cantaloupe, corn (elote), chiles, squash, beans and herbs. These crops all grew successfully and reaffirmed that growing food sustainably in an arid, hot climate requires growing varieties adapted to high heats, low water and the native soils in this area.
EVUGP was awarded $17,500 through the Conservation Fund to expand the program in 2018 to hire two part-time Garden Keepers to help maintain the gardens. It will also help start a six-month internship program for 10 youth on producing food, including growing crops from seed, maintaining, harvesting and even selling produce. All positions will be hired from the local community to create opportunities for increasing job skills, something the community expressed as very important.
Existing and developing partnerships with county government, Youth Development Inc, NMSU County Extension Agency, and Valencia Community Action Network help to leverage funds with in-kind support.
The program coordinator is working with a contract through the Conservation Fund award to develop a stronger monitoring and evaluation plan. This will be used to ensure program goals and activities are not only developed in collaboration with the community served but that these activities are successful and meeting the goals of the program. Information from the monitoring and evaluation will also help in creating the ‘farmlette’ component of the original proposal, where home gardens and farms are developed throughout the East Mesa.
The district will focus on meaningful community engagement, including bilingual meetings, to develop a business plan for the program. This will include working with partners to identify whether the program should develop into a separate non-profit or become affiliated with an existing partner.