Some Personal Experiences Starting Community Gardens, by Sam Rose
My initial reasons for coming to La Paz, Baja California Sur were similar to many folks who have migrated here from the interior of Mexico and from abroad. The region is celebrated worldwide as an ecological hotspot and the city enjoys a relatively high quality of life with regard to economy and security. I had been invited to help develop the outdoor education programs for an NGO, Ecology Project International, which links students and scientists in the outdoor classroom located at the Sea of Cortes, or as Jacques Cousteau referred to it, “the aquarium of the world.” I spent this time collaborating with local students, teachers, and scientists to create environmental education courses, field trips, and camping excursions on the islands and coasts of this geologic masterpiece. With my students, we investigated wildlife raging from mega-fauna, such as blue whales and sea turtles, to more foundational species in the ecological pyramid, like sea stars and urchins.
After nearly five years managing these programs, I seized an opportunity for a change in my professional career. I have a degree in Plant Science and a Master’s in Education, and my dream had always been to marry these two interests. I informed my employer of my imminent departure, and in August of 2010 I began to cultivate a part of the property I rent in La Paz (around 5,500 square feet). By December I was selling my organic produce in a local farmers market that was just starting up. The extra cash was nice, but mainly this was an experiment to see if organic urban agriculture could be a viable endeavor in this region.
This experiment turned into a proposal for a bigger-picture project: a community garden. A friend, Erika Goetz, and I had been talking about initiating a community garden for a while. My former job had placed me in contact with potential funders, and it was time to put our case together. The state of Baja California Sur is Mexico’s least populated state, but it is experiencing one of the fastest paces of growth in the country. Like many other places in the world, this pressure is leading to water scarcity and environmental degradation. We are experiencing rampant urban expansion and seeing “food deserts” emerge that are in part causing an epidemic of illnesses -- heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and health-related problems from obesity and inadequate diet. There is a lack of physical activity, especially for vulnerable groups (youth, elderly and women), and many residents complain of an unraveling of the social fabric because of scarcity of opportunities for youth in marginalized communities. All of these factors are impacting the quality of life celebrated in this region.
Our idea was that community gardens could help to alleviate these deficiencies and we put together a proposal explaining how. In January of 2011, a supporter leant us a basically abandoned lot (around 6,000 square feet) in the center of town and gave us $5000 (U.S. dollars) to get started. With a few friends, on a voluntary basis, we began by painting the walls around the property with construction lime and cleaning up the rundown building located there. We installed a bathroom and created a tool shed. We marked out around 25 gardening parcels and ran water spigots to each one.
Once the grounds were presentable, we opened the doors to the community. The goal was to provide a community space, a green oasis in the city, where residents could cultivate organic produce, learn about healthy food preparation, exchange knowledge on sustainable home technologies, and strengthen community connections. We got the word out every way we knew how: we used mass emails; sent messages to already established list-serves through personal contacts; made appearances on local radio and television; published press releases and articles; made signs for the garden inviting the public; and created a blogspot webpage and facebook account. Alongside our outreach, we started offering free workshops on organic gardening and related subjects. Sometimes we would lead the courses ourselves, other times friends of the garden would offer their expertise at our venue.
Interest grew. We managed to get the garden parcels adopted, and we were training at least 80 participants at our workshops. We realized it was time to take this project to the next level, so we decided to create a nonprofit organization to amplify and expand our activities. During the summer of 2011 we put together a larger proposal and submitted it to the International Community Foundation, a group that was already financing social development programs in the region. Our grant was accepted and we created the organization called “Raíz De Fondo,” which translates more or less to “deep roots.” We are now an officially recognized nonprofit in Mexico.
With a little over a year having passed since we started this initiative, we now manage three community gardens in La Paz which serve as platforms for our educational and community development activities. In these spaces we continue to offer gardening parcels for adoption, free gardening and kitchen workshops, a seed library, and school visits. The community response has been incredible. We have six part-time employees to supervise the three gardens and manage the organization, in addition to the dozens of volunteers that help with the physical maintenance and improvements at each garden.
The local government is starting to take notice, too. We have been approached by several agencies within the municipality who want to integrate our model and workshops into social development projects that they are already implementing. This translates into funding to increase the amount of work we can do to reach the marginalized populations that could be most impacted, both within La Paz and in more rural areas.
Of course we cannot do everything ourselves. Our plans for the future include a systematic approach of training local community leaders to create their own autonomous community gardens. We also want to beef up our teacher trainings and garden curriculum so that schools can further our mission. Our student visits currently include just garden activities but we are going to integrate food preparation for this next academic year. We are initiating a series of workshops this season on water catchment and urban reforestation with local species. We are also starting a cooperative garden store so we can get better products for the organic garden and kitchen. Finally, we are creating a curriculum called “Empowering Youth Entrepreneurs in Community Gardens.” The idea is to combine organic gardening with leadership development, project planning, and marketing trainings to help young people grow and sell their organic produce in these food deserts that exist in their neighborhoods.
As far as lessons learned, I would recommend the following:
- Once you get an appropriate space and seed money for a community garden, go for it. It only takes a few months to get beautiful vegetables growing, and once the party gets started and the doors are open, the guests start arriving. Modifications can be made later on and you’ll have more knowledge and input from the participants who jump on board along the way.
- Take advantage of local media, bulletin boards, and web resources to get the word out. Just make sure you have something to offer if you are sending out an invitation. Have clear short-term goals that you can accomplish. Small successful steps will keep spirits high and encourage volunteers and participants to keep on working hard for your vision.
- Offer free courses and workshops. You can lead these or other experts in your community can lead these. Most people are eager for a forum in which to share their knowledge. Courses are a great incentive to get new people to come to your garden, and a percentage of them will donate their time or money to help with its development.
- Focus on the basics and then expand the scope of your community garden initiative. Sometimes we can be victims of our own ambition and get burned out in the process. It’s probably better in the long run to hone smaller projects and then integrate larger ones little by little.
- Look for a diversified portfolio of funding because you never know if you might get cut off. We offer free workshops and suggest donations. We sell basic organic gardening supplies at a discounted rate which leaves a bit of money for the part-time employees. One of our gardens will be offering a few CSA memberships in the form of weekly baskets of vegetables to help make ends meet. We have applied for grants through a variety of institutions, both private and public.
- We also started a Kickstarter campaign. Please give it a visit before July 6th and share it with your contacts!
- Most importantly, have fun while working hard. Turn on the music during work sessions. Have some refreshments available for volunteers. Celebrate each success. The tone you create obviously has much to do with the amount of community integration you achieve. Reach out to neighbors, agencies, and local businesses, and, without pressuring anyone, let them know that the doors are open and their participation is welcome.
There are millions of ways to go about starting a community garden. These experiences are what has worked for us in our local context.
Sam Rose is a member of edibleschoolyard.org and the director of Raíz De Fondo A.C. in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico.