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  • Flood Control cultivates fruitful relationship with community farm on Santa Cruz River

    Nov 22, 2017 | Read More News
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    File: Las Milpitas de Cottonwood Urban FarmModern techniques and theory meet a millennia-old farming tradition at a special spot in the Pima County Regional Flood Control District’s Paseo de las Iglesias project. The Community Food Bank’s Las Milpitas de Cottonwood Urban Farm serves as the center of a thriving community of gardeners on the west bank of the Santa Cruz River north of Ajo Way.

    “This is what this land was made for. There’s been agriculture here for 4,000 years,” farm manager Chris Lowen said. “This is the breadbasket of Tucson, right here along the river. There’s a nice continuation of an agricultural history that’s happening here.”

    What started as a pair of tiny plots organized by a farming-focused non-profit group in the mid-1990s and then became an outdoor classroom for students and staff at City High School in the mid-2000s today covers most of the seven acres the Food Bank rents from Flood Control. The District acquired the stretch after the historic flooding of 1983 swallowed several homes and small farms that once stood there.

    Las Milpitas currently serves close to 2,000 Pima County residents annually, most from nearby neighborhoods. The farm provides materials and support for people to grow their own food, especially low-income families and members of marginalized groups. In addition, the farm tests experimental growing and harvesting techniques and other research examining issues of long-term food insecurity.

    “We have 84 garden plots. Not all of those are always under production but those are always available for people to come and grow food for themselves," Lowen said. "It’s a lot of families. So, one plot may be one family or sometimes two families. We have staff people here Tuesday through Saturday and gardeners have a code to the gate and can access the site any time.”

    A free membership at Las Milpitas comes with a sunken four-foot-by-20-foot plot with drip irrigation installed. Currently, the beds are bursting with hardy winter crops — kale, chard, broccoli, lettuce and root vegetables. In exchange, members must give three hours of volunteer time monthly at the farm and keep up the maintenance on their section.

    “We’re certified “Naturally Grown” and so we’re basically operating under organic principles. So spraying chemicals and all that stuff is out.”

    The $14 million Paseo de las Iglesias used 2004 bonds to build erosion-control features, ecosystem restoration and construction of river park facilities along the banks of the Santa Cruz from Ajo Way to Silverlake Road. Project planners used the farm’s presence as a reference point on the west side of the project boundary. Construction ran from 2013 to 2015 and never impeded operations or programming at Las Milpitas.

    “As the design of Paseo was occurring, we made sure we had a pathway connection to Las Milpitas and that our post and cable lined up with their fence line,” Paseo project lead Deirdre Brosnihan said.” They are really a great neighbor and fit for Paseo because they have such a similar vision. What they’ve done on that site is phenomenal.”

    In addition to shoring up the banks of the Santa Cruz, the project added 2.7 miles of paved pathway and 2.2 miles of decomposed granite pathway to both banks of the Santa Cruz. It also built a ramada just off the property at Las Milpitas that has become something of a marketing boon, helping spread word about the farm via Loop users who frequently interact with gardeners while taking a break in the shade.

    “The County did a great job of including us as they built Paseo de las Iglesias,” Lowen said. "From the Farm’s perspective, it was great. We were invited to all the public meetings and they worked around our existing footprint and worked with us in terms of the space that we were hoping to have.”

    File: Las Milpitas de Cottonwood Urban FarmFlood Control engineers even provided the parcel with a reclaimed water connection, something that will soon come in handy, providing irrigation for the farm’s fruit trees and the growing commercial operations on the property’s southern end. A new agreement with the International Rescue Committee to provide gardener training to dozens of immigrants will take up several of those larger sections.

    The farm’s other programming includes workshops to teach, demonstrate and promote sustainable food gardening. Food Bank and farm staff have hosted nearly two dozen such sessions so far this year.

    “It’s everything from our ‘Garden Basics 101’ class to backyard chickens to fruit trees to greywater systems,” Lowen said. “The goal is to provide as much education as we can to get people started on the right foot. Because it can be hard to garden here.”

    Las Milpitas further cements a sense of community by hosting seasonal public events, most recently its post-Halloween “Pumpkin Smash” contest that used a catapult to dispose of leftover jack o’ lanterns. An ever-popular fixture of community nights is a compost giveaway for first-timers.

    “We’ve had weddings here. We’ve had birthday parties here. But providing that community space for people to interact, we’re helping cut down on the social isolation that happens with some folks, especially those with limited mobility or who are lower-income.”

    Las Milpitas also partners with City High School and 10 other organizations to provide educational opportunities. The relationship with City High stretches back to 2011 when school officials invited the Food Bank to help manage the site.

    “They were looking for a partner,” Lowen said. “The Food Bank was looking for an urban space to do farming education and community organizing. The timing really worked out well.”

    City High students still regularly tend the school’s plots and help out with general chores; often using the visits to supplement classroom time on a variety of subjects from culinary arts to biology to local history.

    The history of farming on the Santa Cruz is not lost on many who work at Las Milpitas, it’s literally underfoot at all times.

    “We’re built on an old archeological site. The top two feet have been disturbed by plows because this was alfalfa back in the 80s, so we have access to the top two feet,” Lowen said. “If we want to build a ramada or a catchment basin for reclaimed water, the footers can’t go past two feet. We can’t have a sewer line because that’s at three feet. Anything deeper, we need permission from Flood Control.”

    For more on Las Milpitas de Cottonwood, contact the Community Food Bank by phone, 520. 622.0525 or online.