Handcrafted foods and their makers are deeply engaged in a vision to do good work. Beyond the locavore superstars visible in this movement — there are everyday people busy in backyards and kitchens, seeking the values and pleasures of good nourishment.
Ajo is one rural community blending culture and stewardship, where neighbors are taking up the journey to make healthy food a right and a form of place-keeping. BorderLore spoke with two powerful voices in the regional rediscovery of sustainable foods: International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) executive advisor Tracy Taft, and Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s founder Nina Sajovec, who carry with them different legacies that inspire respect for and connection to the land.
Nina: Grew up in Slovenia where her father worked a farm as a child — and Nina now carries with her traditions of good natural food as the center of community life. After moving from a law degree into environmental anthropology, her evolving studies led her to the Sonoran Desert and the blending of activism, farming and education, including farmer and school garden programs on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, and ultimately in 2008 to the founding of the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture, inspiring a grassroots movement dedicated to a sustainable and just food system in Ajo.
Tracy: Glassworks artist who drove into Ajo early in the 1990s and decided to stay — Tracy knew, both from her arts and her neighborhood-based community work in Washington DC, about the power of weaving webs of relationships into community development. Her subsequent involvement with ISDA, first as executive director and now as advisor, inspired a hard reboot for Ajo, spanning creative, physical, economic, architectural and social boundaries, bringing national grants and media attention into the city, and pivoting a former mining town from doom to a positive path of revival.
Centering in the wild spaces around us
N: Early on as a grad student with limited funds, I learned that eating nourishing food was a privilege, not a right. There was an injustice in that. I also saw supermarkets on the Nation selling high priced packaged and processed foods transported from great distances, while experiences and traditions of growing native foods and using traditional farming techniques were being lost. Some foods were becoming rare, only used for ceremony. I saw the injustice of unsustainable processes that were distancing people from their lands and forcing people to lose touch with traditions. Our work is all about reclaiming relationships, working as a community to restore the land and enjoy place-based foods that enrich us while connecting us to this unique landscape.
Making the land productive
N: Soil scientists have studied our land — it is caliche, among the worst growing conditions in Arizona. So our idea was not to look for big rolling hills with intense irrigation. Instead we sought distributed agriculture, programs supporting a network on all levels, from a pot of basil to a backyard garden, and from community small growers to composters. We’re adopting traditional Native American deep soaking techniques for our crops and other sustainable planting methods. Six years ago not even 1000 pounds of produce were harvested in Ajo. Now there are gardens, flowers and fruit trees all around the community. We’re planting native beans, greens, squashes and fruits, turning once dry vacant lots into food forests and a green oasis. Permaculture and local food growing are now part of the everyday language of the people. Today there’s over 59,000 square feet of land in cultivation, with more than 8000 pounds of produce being harvested.
Inspiring people into advocacy roles
T: Ajo is a place where the cultural landscape is as much a part of the heritage as the protected wilderness. The diversity — of cultures, backgrounds and interests, from young Anglo to Border Patrol and Tohono O’odham families — seems to unite us and offer us a convergence of opportunities. Resulting transboundary collaborations are helping to preserve protected and tribal lands through sustained programs and associations. We all came together and formed the Ajo Regional Food Partnership through which we host an annual food festival. We partner with the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture on their Many Hands Urban Farm and Learning Center, which includes a food forest, heirloom pomegranate orchard, several garden areas and chicken coop, and the commercial kitchen, all at the new ISDA Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center on the Curley School campus, inspiring community entrepreneurship and new collaborations, incubating producers, teaching about food manufacturing as well as providing a commercial kitchen and demonstration area necessary for the preparation of market-ready products. And we’re engaging all ages, with student programs like Edible Ajo School Yard (EASY), co-sponsored by the Desert Senita Health Clinic, which brings education outdoors and diverts food waste with on-site composting and organic gardens.
The Ajo Plaza is the center of community life year round, with new shops and services, and a weekly farmers market (which will move to the evenings in the summer). While the trend today in smaller, rural communities is to lose population, Ajo is the opposite, drawing new people to the community, and seeing a 2.2 percent growth.
Spirit of a community pantry
T & N: Food has always been a great expression of community — building relationships that make sustainable foods accessible and engaging. It starts with wanting to eat good food, and communicating with each other around food. We listen to elders, to learn about wellness and gain practice-based knowledge that you can’t learn in books. Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture holds Open Farm days on Wednesday mornings, where anyone can come and work with the farmers, learning sustainable growing techniques.
In our Ajo gardening — before 2008 there maybe were just two families involved. Now there are more than 120 families engaged in gardening (note: Ajo CSA’s Ajo Gardeners Network has 95 members, but overall, there are people now gardening that are not our members). We give families compost and seedlings, pool resources to purchase equipment like a chipper, and connect backyard gardeners in the same neighborhood.
Supper clubs bring us together, opening up our backyards and desert places for both work sessions and the enjoyment of community and good home cooking. A recent cookout menu brought pickled local turnips, barbecued homemade bratwurst, mac and cheese and local grapefruit sorbet to our table — delicious!
In an Adopt a Sonoran Desert Crop program, more than 40 families have adopted seedlings, including pomegranate, for their gardens. We use the food banks as outreach, doubling value of food stamps so that all families can afford locally grown and nutritious foods.
It’s late April at the Ajo farmer’s market, but there are still some winter greens, the first of the tomatoes, lots of squash and fruits. There are jars of marmalades, salsas, jellies, local soaps and arts. Demonstrations and conversations abound. The food movement has changed Ajo. It has become a vehicle to connect and learn, to to build friendships, school activism and create jobs. Whether Mexican-American, Filipino, O’odham or Anglo — with food, we may all speak the same language.
Save the Date: The third annual Dia de San Ysidro Labrador 2016 — traditional Tucson farmers’ festival — is Saturday, May 14, at Mission Garden. Check the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace website for details and reservations.
- Read the Atlantic’s American Futures post about Ajo and the International Sonoran Desert Alliance.
- The saguaro fruit harvest is coming. Check for ISDA events and special programs
- Learn about events and like the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s Facebook page.
- Travelers, check for news and accommodations at the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center.