“We work, we learn, we have fun,” says Chris Lowen, Manager of Las Melpitas de Cottonwood Farm on the banks of the Santa Cruz River.
The six-acre farm, a collaboration of the Community Food Bank, Pima County, and several community organizations, has 50 farmers or “plot managers” who grow their own crops. But Las Milpitas (translated as cornfield) is more than just a place to plant, grow and harvest, according to its organizers.
“We are focused on the community and work with many food box recipients, so we make a positive impact when our gardeners take food home as well as the networking that occurs in a place that doesn’t have many green areas. We’re helping build a more hunger-free and resilient community,” Lowen says.
According to its official mission statement, the farm provides, “a working demonstration site for desert food production, composting, ecological restoration, and permaculture for the greater Tucson community.”
Part of that effort is focused on gardeners of the future in the form of two summertime Farm Camps that ran in July.
“There’s a portion of the farm that the Food Bank uses to grow produce and our young campers will work with already-growing crops as well as learning to plant seeds in a timely fashion for the monsoon rains.”
Each student in three age categories (5-6, 7-10, 11-12) has the opportunity to connect with something of interest to them.
“There’s lots to learn from observing glassed-in bee hives to worm composting to just-plain-getting-your-hands dirty by harvesting from the field. We want kids to latch on to something that makes them happy. We want them to learn, in a fun way, how our food system works and how food tastes in its natural state, not just in a processed package from a supermarket.”
Not only do the campers get to plant, harvest, and eat things like carrots pulled fresh from the garden, home-grown snacks of field cucumbers and tomato salad are offered to help them learn to distinguish between fresh-from-the-field and store-bought. Summertime crops available for care and harvest currently include watermelons, zucchini and other squash varieties, eggplant, tomato and basil.
The fledgling Farm Camp (now in its second year) is somewhat of an off-shoot of the Community Food Bank’s former Youth Farm Project in Marana that previously offered an intensive exploration of the local food system, issues of hunger, and sustainable agriculture to build food security. The CFB Farm Camp has also borrowed a few lessons learned at the Tucson Village Farm, a University of Arizona/Pima County Cooperative Extension program that has been around since 2010.
“We are a working urban farm built by, and for, community youth,” says one of the Village Farm’s co-founders, Elizabeth Sparks. “Our aim is to reconnect young people to a healthy food system, teach them how to grow and prepare fresh foods, and empower them to make healthy life choices.”
Says Lowen: “We learned a lot from the Village Farm folks who trained our high school farm counselors for a busy agenda of a variety of educational activities like composting, harvesting, caring for chickens, and learning from guest speakers,” says Lowen. “We’ve also set aside time for fun with arts and crafts because we want to educate the kids in a fun way about how a healthy food system works.”