This Farmworker Community Garden is Fighting to Stay on the Land | Civil Eats

This Community Garden Helps Farmworkers Feed Themselves. Now It’s Facing Eviction.

The members of Tierras Milperas in Watsonville, Calif. are struggling to maintain access to their garden. Similar stories are unfolding across the country. 

A farmworkers grows stands in the fields harvesting food at the Tierras Milperas community garden.

On a recent weekday, Hugo Sanchez Nava and Augustin Contreras were hustling to get the word out about the Watsonville, California, community garden they were trying to protect. When they’re not working in the fields, the farmworkers have been spending time corresponding with other food and land access advocates, speaking to reporters, and soliciting signatures for a petition to save the garden.

Nava and Contreras are the community coordinator and an elder advisor with Tierras Milperas, a community garden collective group that operates seven gardens in this and other Central Coast farming communities. The garden in question is the largest; it occupies 1 acre of land on the larger grounds of the All Saints-Cristo Rey Episcopal Church and serves 51 immigrant farmworker families. In late April, its members had been served a two-week lease termination notice, and although the end date had come and gone, Tierras Milperas members haven’t stopped gardening.

“We all come from farming backgrounds, and this is our tradition.”

The gardeners were first sent a letter terminating their lease in June 2022. At the time, the church claimed that neighbors in the surrounding neighborhood had made multiple complaints about suspicious activity on its property. After a series of tense negotiations, the gardeners have managed to stay on the property for the last 10 months. Now, however, the future of the garden is in jeopardy again.

This time the threat of eviction has gained attention throughout the food sovereignty community, and the gardeners have received a growing groundswell of support. That’s largely because Tierras Milperas’s spaces—like the other rare but crucial gardens created by farmworkers—are more than your typical community gardens.

“The space is for growing organic vegetables, and when we come out of the fields where we work, it’s a place to be more tranquil,” says Contreras. “We all come from farming backgrounds, and this is our tradition.”

In addition to providing an important opportunity to farm, Tierras Milperas is also a community gathering place. In recent years, it gained fiscal sponsorship from the Community Agroecology Network and has increasingly focused on expanding its efforts, and on working as a collective through an assembly, a group of elders, and a working group.

The crops growing at Tierras Milperas community garden in Watsonville, California.

Crops growing at Tierras Milperas in Watsonville, California. (Photo courtesy of Tierras Milperas.)

Many of its members are Indigenous, and they focus on growing and sharing knowledge about traditional cultural foods while using chemical-free farming and seed-keeping practices. The goal, says the group’s website, is to “put our health decisions and community social fabric in our hands rather than in an agrofood and health care system that sicken us with diabetes, stress, individuality, and labor exploitation.”

The garden on the Church’s property has become all the more important this spring, as one of the group’s other gardens was damaged when a broken levee led to devastating floods and mass evacuation in the nearby town of Pajaro.

“The garden serves as a lifeline to communities of farmworkers who live in a part of the state that produces an immense amount of produce, but they can’t afford [to buy] it themselves and so they have to grow it,” says Neil Thapar, the co-director of Minnow, a group working for land tenure for farmers of color and Indigenous land stewards that has been collaborating with Tierras Milperas for several years to help them secure their own land. “They’re growing food because they need to support their families. And that should be a right that’s afforded to anyone who wants to do that,” adds Thapar.

“The garden serves as a lifeline to communities of farmworkers who live in a part of the state that produces an immense amount of produce, but can’t afford to buy it themselves and so they have to grow it.”

“The church broke our contract,” Nava says. “Now, we’re asking for reasonable time to harvest everything we’ve planted. We can give them the land, but we’re asking to wait until February 2024.”

All Saints-Cristo Rey Episcopal Church did not respond to a request for comment by press time. In a statement to a local news outlet last summer, Bishop Lucinda Ashby of the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real wrote, “The gardeners have not been evicted, but the lease with Tierras Milperas is being terminated.” At the time, Ashby said “calls to police have been made frequently by surrounding neighbors due to suspicious activity on the property.”

The initial letter from the church mentioned drug paraphernalia left on the property and the death of a groundskeeper, who garden members say had been living in his car on the property at the time and suffered from alcoholism.

“They got false information and are unwilling to analyze it,” says Nava.

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“It seems to us that they don’t like what we do when we come together as a community and have meetings,” added Contreras. “Many families come to the garden and women and children enjoy it and see it as a safe space.”

“Since then they haven’t wanted to [communicate] to us, just our fiscal sponsor—and even then they didn’t actually want to speak with them,” says Nava. “After we had such a big public outcry locally, the bishop agreed to have the pastor have dialogues with us and come to a different agreement.” That agreement didn’t last.

Tierras Milperas community garden watsonville

Photo by Sarai Bordeaux.

“There are a lot of negative statements being made about a community, that work racist dog whistles about the members of the Tierras Milperas community,” says Thapar. “If the church had these concerns, the assumption would be that you’d discuss this with your tenants of 13 years. Instead, their approach was to accuse and make assumptions, when there never had been any such situations.”

Thapar points to the power held by institutions such as churches, as well as the fact that a primarily Latin American and Indigenous population in an agricultural region is already at a disadvantage culturally.

“That social inequality is tied to property ownership. This situation is an example where that tension is very apparent, because while the gardeners had access to the lease, it’s clear that it can be taken away in an instant,” Thapar adds.

At this point, Tierras Milperas has gathered more than 600 signatures in an online petition that calls on church leaders to stop the eviction.

“We’ve received support from many people from here but also from around the country, and around the world. [Author, professor, and filmmaker] Raj Patel visited the garden recently. That has helped a lot in the last two weeks,” says Contreras.

Photo courtesy of Tierras Milperas.

“One of the most important things that community gardens can cultivate is community,” Patel, who is also on Civil Eats’ advisory board, explained by email. “With the church’s permission, those communities have flourished, turning soil into food, land into a schoolyard for children, and into a center for care in which seniors can be part of a community, not segregated away. At heart, Tierras Milperas’ fight is a struggle against segregation. Affluent white suburbanites don’t want ‘those people.’ But Tierras Milperas’ communities are vastly inclusive. With its eviction announcement, the church betrays its own principles, and I’m struggling to understand what they gain instead.”

The group’s struggle to stay on the land in Watsonville is just one of several similar situations. In Los Angeles, Compton Community Garden is working to raise $600,000 to buy the land it occupies while its fate lies in the hands of a developer.

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In Saint Louis, Missouri, urban farmer Tosha Phonix told Civil Eats that several urban farmers in the city are being turned down in their attempts to buy previously vacant land, despite the fact that the city has “close to 12,000 blighted or vacant properties.”

“Thirty percent of our community is Indigenous people who have already been displaced from their lands. It is these forces that continue to try to erase us.”

When asked about whether he sees the fight for the Watsonville garden as part of a larger trend, Nava says, “It is a process of pricing people out, or gentrification. The people who do this act like they’re the majority, but they’re the minority. We’re in a predominantly immigrant community and there has been a lot of pricing out of our immigrant families in this region. Thirty percent of our community is Indigenous people who have already been displaced from their lands. It is these forces that continue to try to erase us.”

Regardless of how the scenario plays out, the gardeners intend to continue growing food together as a community. And for now, Tierras Milperas is raising funds for a plot of land through GoFundMe.

“We’ll continue what we’ve been doing for the last 5 years, working as collective,” says Nava. This is the part they don’t like—we’re organized.”

Twilight Greenaway is the former managing editor and executive editor of Civil Eats. Her articles about food and farming have appeared in The New York Times, NPR.org, The Guardian, Food and Wine, Gastronomica, and Grist, among other. See more at TwilightGreenaway.com. Follow her on Twitter. Read more >

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