Seeds in the City

Written by Wynter Holden Category: Valley News Issue: May 2013
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Envisioning thousands of city gardens, urban farming educators aim to transform Phoenix into an oasis of edibility.

“Gardening in the desert is one great big grand experiment,” Greg Peterson says. The educator and urban farmer is instructing a group of gardening enthusiasts who’ve gathered for a citrus-grafting class at the new Root Phoenix, west of Piestewa Peak. He taps the root of a sturdy sample tree and instructs his students on the delicacies of grafting desirable specimens onto the root stock of heartier plants.

Ironically, Peterson began farming in the desert after a friend told him about an encounter on a tropical island. His friend was sailing in the Pacific and had docked on a small isle and wandered into town asking for the nearest grocery store. A villager gestured toward fields of ripe fruits and vegetables, where all of the island’s produce was grown and shared among community members. Go pick dinner, the tribesman said.


Now, Peterson – along with a cornucopia of activists, students, politicians, refugees, and backyard farming buffs – are grafting this grand community garden idea onto the surprisingly hearty root stock of urban Phoenix.

Phoenix currently supports approximately 2,000-3,000 urban gardens, a number that is likely to grow as the city draws back restrictions on urban farmers and implements a new plan to green vacant lots. In addition, Peterson aims to exponentially increase that number by educating locals on desert farming techniques, a grassroots movement he dubbed the 10,000 Farms Initiative. And he’s finding fertile ground in the minds of many Phoenicians.

According to the World Health Organization, more than half the world’s population currently resides in urban areas, and that number is expected to boom to 70 percent by the year 2050. With the decreasing availability of rural land, and agriculturists to farm it, edible backyard landscapes may someday help fill food-supply deficits. Hence, urban farming appeals to those with a prepper mentality or self-reliant streak. But others are making a statement: They’re supporting local farmers rather than international conglomerates. They’re promoting greenhouses over the greenhouse-gas-producing 1,500-plus miles an average crop travels before reaching the corner grocery store. They’re selecting fresh food that’s more nutritious than travel-weary produce. And they’re choosing the satisfaction of picking dinner from a backyard or community farm.


While Peterson says his goal of creating 10,000 urban farms falls well short of the 80,000 or more small farms it would take to feed every Phoenician, it’s a start. “I take on great, big, crazy, audacious goals. Who knows if it will ever happen? But that’s not the point.”

While Phoenix may seem like inhospitable terrain for a vegetable revolution, Roosevelt Row programs manager Kenny Barrett is sprouting produce in an even unlikelier place: the bed of a rusty, orange-red 1985 Ford pickup.
The truck is part of a national campaign to educate communities on urban agricultural methods, as seen in the Wicked Delicate film Truck Farm. Originally a community-funded Kickstarter project, this second incarnation of the Phoenix Farm Truck – christened in September 2012 and emblazoned with “RORO” (short for Roosevelt Row) over the original Ford logo – is funded by Chipotle, which sources produce from local and organic farms whenever possible.
Nine student “greenterns” from the nearby Bioscience High School planted carrots, Swiss chard, bok choy, and other vegetables from seed, along with thyme and kale plants for “instant gratification.” To decrease strain on the vehicle, crates and packing material were placed inside the bed, topped with a thin layer of compost and soil. Greenterns take turns tending the plants, setting up school visits and instructing younger children on growing techniques.


Barrett is no stranger to horticulture, having turned the front and side yards of his former rental house on Roosevelt Row into a community garden with small plots offered at $10 per month. Founded in 2009, Growhouse is as much a product of Barrett’s desire for personal knowledge as it is a catalyst for community bonding. “When I started, I wanted to know where my food came from,” he says. “I didn’t know what a Brussels sprout plant looked like, and that bothered me.”
Likewise, Bioscience High School senior Cassandra Valdez didn’t know beans about farming prior to her acceptance as a greentern. Since entering the program, she has become not only a skilled gardener but a proponent of education and self-sustenance. “I believe it is important for younger students to understand where their food comes from because it will allow them to make more educated choices [about] what they want to put in their bodies,” she says. Barrett plans to reward his inaugural crop of interns with a homemade meal incorporating the pickup’s harvest. The goal of the truck isn’t to provide food, he explains. “It’s mostly about the education and connecting the dots for the students.”


To illustrate Barrett’s point, Timothy Olorunfemi, coordinator of the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots program in Phoenix, recalls a class of 26 students who attended a garden tour. He pulled out a large orange root caked with dirt and asked one boy to identify it. The boy glanced up in confusion. “It is a carrot,”  Olorunfemi said. “They do not grow at Wal-Mart, you know.” The youngster’s eyes grew wide with amazement. “Really?” he asked.

Founded in October 2007, the New Roots program provides land plots and agricultural education for social and political refugees. The size of the plot depends on household size and the intent of the gardener (i.e. feeding a single family versus selling produce at farmers’ markets). In its infancy, New Roots serviced 10 families on 14 acres of land. Today, there are approximately 75 families farming across five smaller gardens totaling five acres scattered throughout Phoenix, along with an additional 100 acres of dedicated farmland. The original 14 acres are now part of a privately owned farm tended by a former New Roots member.

In just five years, New Roots became so successful that farmers began requesting assistance setting up an agricultural business. One roadblock was insurance, which can set a small farm back $2,000-$5,000 per year. In response, New Roots administrators created the Gila Farm Cooperative, which combined the resources of several families and diminished the individual contribution required. Co-op members sell produce at market, purchase from other New Roots farmers, and run a Community Supported Agriculture program where locals can pre-order online and pick up boxes of vegetables at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) office each week.


Scalding summer weather aside, Olorunfemi points out that the growing season in Phoenix is year-round, and the climate similar to many of the refugees’ homelands. A Nigerian immigrant with a Masters degree in Agricultural Economics, he understands the hurdles farmers must overcome when transplanted to the desert. “When I come here and look around, everything is brown,” Olorunfemi jokes. “For [refugees] to figure out how to get started in agriculture here is a challenge. This program is designed to show them how to get started and how to triumph.”

On a brisk Saturday morning in February, Bhutanese refugee Januka Neupane picks vegetables from her plot at Cross Connections community garden in north Phoenix. She lays down two blankets – one for drying mustard greens, another as a makeshift workspace. Januka sits and begins to slice a thick white root with a pair of massive scissors. There is a steady rhythm to her movements as she chops, then pauses to spread the growing pile of vegetable pieces around with one hand.

Januka’s husband, Dadhi, is at the Downtown Phoenix Farmers’ Market, where he sells organic produce to locals hungry for fresh vegetables. Dadhi is a top producer at Cross Connections, one of five community gardens run by IRC as part of the New Roots program. Only 1 percent of refugees worldwide will be permanently resettled – the Neupanes are among these lucky few.

Januka explains her task to a group of community volunteers here to help clean up debris on the 1.5-acre lot. Chop. Chop. Slide around. The plants in front of her are leftovers, parts of the plants locals will not eat. The white vegetable will be pickled, while the dried greens are for a traditional soup. “It is… radish,” Januka says as she hands spectators a sample of the daikon. “It is very sour. These ones Americans do not like.” As I bite into the pungent root, I can see why.

Nearby, 24-year-old Duniya Abdikadir walks through a two-foot-high row of pristine arugula plants, her colorful orange and yellow patterned hijab billowing behind her. It has rained recently. Abdikadir’s turquoise sandals sink into the mud as she stoops to pluck a weed. Duniya and her husband, Abdiaziz Galgalow, brought their three children to the United States from war-torn Somalia eight years ago. After initially settling in Virginia, they moved to Arizona in search of economic opportunity. It is a common reason for secondary migrants to resettle in Arizona. “I hate snow,” Abdikadir says. “I like farming here.” Her only wish is for more land to farm. Like many of the refugees who belong to Gila River Cooperative, Abdikadir and her family hope to grow their business and one day purchase land of their own


“We don’t encourage the community farmers and gardeners to quit their job until they really understand the market, have a business plan, really know what they’re doing,” development manager Nicolle Walker says. Because New Roots relies on land use donation, there is a limited amount of space available. As the program expands, available plots grow smaller and smaller. “We’re not shrinking, we’re diversifying,” Walker likes to think. Still, she hopes that private landholders will help bridge the gap with donations of 20-40 acres of farmland, seeds, or cultivation tools.

The IRC may soon find increased land availability as Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton implements a citywide vacant lot plan. The program, PHX Renews, allows for temporary improvements to privately-owned plots. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Colin Tetreault, sustainability advisor for the Mayor’s office. Some lots are well-suited to gardening, while others will house art installations or educational displays. For example, the 15-acre lot at Indian School Road and Central Avenue now houses refugee gardens through IRC and the University of Arizona extension office, a tri-school sustainability project, and 160 murals created at the 2012 Phoenix Festival of the Arts.


“It’s not just gardening. It’s creating jobs for these farmers. We also bring the community together to create a sense of cohesion,” Tetreault says. It’s the same reason New Roots allows non-refugees to tend small patches in their gardens: By working with the community, the refugees become part of it. Garden projects through PHX Renews are temporary, though Tetreault says landowners are welcome to make permanent donations.

Urban gardening made headlines in July 2011 when Michigan resident Julie Bass was threatened with three months in jail for growing a vegetable garden in her front yard. Similarly, Downtown Phoenix residents have encountered roadblocks when setting up urban farms. Growhouse founder Kenny Barrett was issued a city fine for planting corn in the right-of-way between the sidewalk and road. “We jokingly call it ‘never again 2010,’” he says. With community support, Barrett was able to get the charge dropped.


The city regulations that plagued Barrett were relaxed in January 2013 when city officials passed amendments to a form-based code regulating gardening activity. Gardening is now a right in city commerce areas, Tetreault says. There are no restrictions on informal classes and garden workdays. Residents can install art or plant a garden without permits. Tetreault hopes vacant lot projects and relaxed gardening regulations will help Phoenix residents on the road to sustainability. “When you provide people with knowledge and tools, you get lasting change,” he says. “If we can provide our citizens with that opportunity, I think we can make great strides in acting in a more sustainable manner.” Unfortunately, not every area resident benefits from the legal changes. Land outside of the Downtown core is still regulated, and many homeowners associations completely prohibit gardening or limit gardens to backyards. That may soon change as HB 2363 – which prohibits associations from placing restrictions on edible plants – comes before the Arizona State Legislature this year. 


Longtime urban farmer Greg Peterson believes in the adage “teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” After hearing his friend’s tropical island garden story, Peterson adopted the model on a small scale in 1991, planting 60-plus fruit trees, herbs, edible flowers and vegetables on the 1/3-acre plot of his 1950s tract home in Phoenix. At one time, he was able to procure 30-50 percent of his groceries from his front and back yards. The property would later be known as The Urban Farm. As Peterson’s plantings grew, so did his knowledge about farming desert soil. By 1999, he was offering free gardening classes in his living room. He eventually helped found the Phoenix Permaculture Guild, later renamed the Valley Permaculture Alliance, a local nonprofit that provides urban agriculture courses and resources to the community.


He cites health reasons for wanting to grow food, along with concerns about America’s corporate food system. “It’s doing a good job of feeding us right now – although it’s debatable how healthy the food is. But there are many things that can happen which temporarily stop the food supply,” he says. “If we have food growing everywhere and food stopped coming into Phoenix for whatever reason, we’d be OK. And if that never happens, the upside is we’re building a food infrastructure and creating healthy and nutritious food.”

His latest project is Root Phoenix, a community organization offering classes on gardening, cooking, arts and life skills. Root is housed on the site of Phoenix’s first citrus nursery, a 2-acre parcel featuring a 1920s adobe house. Venue Projects, the team behind Windsor Square, is re-adapting the property to include a restaurant, coffee shop and 600-square-foot classroom with kitchen. Peterson also teaches a course through ASU’s School of Sustainability and created a 200-hour urban farming curriculum for the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts in Tempe. “I’m more of an educator these days than a farmer,” he quips. “But I create farmers.”


After 23 years at The Urban Farm, Peterson recently downsized to an 800-square-foot apartment at the Oasis apartment complex on 20th Street and Campbell, also part of Venue Projects’ adaptive reuse program. He hopes to turn his 18 x 20-foot patio into a new type of urban farm with vertical tower gardens and containers. Peterson will continue using organic farming methods despite the added challenge of raised beds (which are more susceptible to sun damage). “Healthy soil is what gives us healthy food,” he says. “When we add chemicals to our gardens, it kills one of the healthiest components of the soil – the life that’s in it.” Peterson likens soil to the human digestive system, our “gut flora.” When the body is healthy, it’s resistant to bugs such as colds and influenza. Similarly, healthy soil repels insects without the need for pesticides.

Eric and Holly Figueroa

Peterson turned the Urban Farm over to a new generation led by Root Phoenix’s educational curator, Shannon Boomer. The pair says the re-skilling movement – the desire of people to learn traditional skills such as gardening and food preservation – has captured the zeitgeist for practical reasons. It’s partially a response to economic depression and natural (or human-caused) disaster preparation. But it’s also about self-fulfillment. “People are seeing what happens when you’re disconnected from your food system. They are unhealthy, unhappy, and out of balance,” Boomer says. “Food is medicine. Digging in the ground is spiritual, without the woo-woo.”

Olorunfemi tells of one older refugee who spends nearly every day at the community garden, pacing the rows of vegetables and working his hands in the dirt. When questioned about it, the man explained that his health was poor when he was stuck indoors. After being given a place to go outside and farm, he feels strong and alive and connected to the world. And then he can go pick dinner.


All Cooped Up

Phoenix residents Eric and Holly Figueroa had no idea what they were getting into when they purchased urban chickens via
Craigslist last year. That evening, Eric and Holly returned home with three 7-month-old hens slumped over in a dog carrier, heads lolling. “We thought they were dead,” Holly remembers. “I was worried that everything I did was wrong.” Turns out the little cluckers were just asleep.

As Phoenix residents look for ways to control food quality, more and more families are raising chickens as a source of healthful, organic eggs. Household chickens can easily live eight to 10 years, providing entertainment far longer than they do eggs. “The best thing is when I give one chicken a worm and she scurries after it,” Holly says. “The other chickens try to take the worm away. It’s like a game.”

When Holly first broached the subject of adding chickens to the family, her husband thought it was a fad. Slowly, she wore him down. The couple attended a screening of the 2008 flick Mad City Chickens at FilmBar and a Valley Permaculture Alliance class with artist Rachel Bess, author of Fowl Play: Your Guide to Keeping Chickens in the City. Bess, a local artist, says her neighbors aren’t bothered by her fowl habit. “Everyone that finds out about the chickens either doesn’t care or thinks it’s great,” she explains. “It’s not as weird as it was 5 or 10 years ago.” Holly and Eric, who recently moved from FQ Story to another nearby historic district in Central Phoenix, say their neighbors have been similarly supportive.


Little is required to maintain urban chickens: a small plot of shaded land, a coop with roosting bars, a $25 bag of feed per month (for a small coop), and water. As with all pets, there is a downside. In May of 2011, Phoenix residents near 29th Avenue and Latham reported five untended chickens wreaking havoc on their properties. With no Maricopa County laws governing feral chickens, the strays remained. Even private trapping hasn’t fully countered flocks of urban chickens likely left behind when their owners relocated. Two years later, unclaimed roosters and peacocks still wander neighborhoods in South Phoenix, Chandler and Glendale.  

These stray birds and other wildlife can be detrimental to cooped chickens. One of Eric and Holly’s first chickens, Gertie, died in October after a feral cat wandered into their yard. “It was a terrible sound,” Holly recalls with a shudder. “Then the dogs came out and took care of the cat. It was the circle of life in our backyard at 3:45 a.m.”

Even so, the Figueroas are thrilled with the ease of their chicken-raising experience. “The first time we saw an egg was like the greatest day of my life,” Holly exclaims, beaming like a proud mother hen. Numerous resources on urban chickens are available online, from the plans Eric used to build his sturdy red coop to forums on chicken health and behavior. Rest assured that whatever challenges a fledgling chicken owner encounters, Holly says, there’s someone out there crowing a solution.