In 1999, Sarah Cantril began to pursue her vision of a community gardening program for low-income women and their families. That year, she worked with six Latina women to develop a 300-square foot garden, and, for the next four years, Cantril volunteered her time to help a half-dozen families annually obtain plots in community gardens, mentor one another on gardening practices and harvest food.
In 2004, the group organized as Huerto de la Familia (The Family Garden) and moved their main site to the Churchill Community Garden in Eugene, Oregon. From the 12 initial families with whom Cantril launched the nonprofit, the group has grown to serve 55 families in three community gardens as well as eight families who launched, in 2008, a cooperative berry farm. Subsidizing plots for participating families, Huerto’s mission is to provide not only seeds and tools, but also access to gardening education and community resources. In 2009, Huerto de la Familia was one of only nine groups to receive the prestigious Harry Chapin Self-Reliance Award from WhyHunger. Along with groups like Growing Power, Fondy Food Center and Growing Home, Huerto de la Familia stands out as a national leader among the urban agriculture movement––in part for how its projects blend a commitment to social justice with an interest in entrepreneurship and the business of farming.
Basilio Sandoval is one of the farmers who constitute the Huerto de la Familia Small Farmers Project. He works as a counselor in the Eugene-Springfield area by profession, but spends many hours a week running a cooperative farm. For Sandoval, the most exciting aspect of the farm has been ”working the land and seeing the plants grow.” Far more challenging than growing organic berries, as Sandoval and co-farmer Margarito Palacios explain, has been the task of developing a small business and making decisions collectively.
Now in their second growing season, the eight families involved in the Project have invested enormous sweat equity to transform land that had been fallow for 40 years into an organic farm that will eventually be profitable for all involved. Cantril, a Master Gardener and recognized community organizer, explains that the Small Farmers Project currently draws on the major grant it received from Heifer International not just for farm supplies and infrastructure but also for investments in leadership and financial training. That training proves crucial to the Project’s long-range goals. The cooperative’s members include families from Peru, El Salvador and Mexico as well two indigenous Mexican families whose first language is not Spanish; families who have decades of experience in agriculture and families who have never farmed.
Leadership and mentorship are as important as organic farming practices to the group’s success: Juan Hernandez, who has farmed for 30 years and worked for the King Estate winery on organic agriculture, helps to direct the work of the farm, while other members take lead roles in farm finances, community outreach and marketing. As for the latter, the cooperative runs a farm stand and u-pick operation during the summer, but also has partnered with Organically Grown Company to expand its distribution channels to include the region between Seattle and Ashland, Oregon.
Cantril poignantly observes that making the Small Farmers Project a business that can support the co-op members and enable them to become professional farmers is at once exciting and enormously difficult. The organization would like to launch a program to incubate micro-businesses related to food and agriculture, for example. The program would mentor community members in accessing resources, provide business training in Spanish, and offer a forum for collaboration.
While this melding of entrepreneurship and cooperative agriculture may be unfamiliar––and even unsettling––to some in the nonprofit sector, the Small Farmers Project has proven to be resourceful in defining their mission and obtaining seed money. Inspired by the Heifer requirement that grant recipients pass on a gift to other families, the Project is passing on not only food from the farm but also training to other families, who may go on to launch their own family gardens and food businesses.
Photos: Huerto de la Familia