Just a year ago, the Future Forward Foundation had evolved beyond its previous passion for planting backyard gardens. The group and its volunteers were focused on big production on larger plots of land to grow as many vegetables and squash to share with as many people as possible. But now, in the midst of a global pandemic, the group is rediscovering its love for small gardens, and helping new backyard gardeners succeed.

“It started matching our mission. … We’ve been pulled toward it by people asking for it,” Executive Director Lina Austin said.

As the pandemic took hold, “There was a hoarding of seeds, there was a rush on all the farm supply stores,” she said. These new gardeners wanted “to have a little control over their own life, and make sure they could feed their family.”

The nonprofit based in Florence, known by the abbreviation 3F, summarizes its mission as reducing poverty, improving the standard of living and promoting the betterment of the community, or simply “caring for our neighbors.” This care has come to include not just the food per se, but the joy of growing it, through what they call “therapy gardens.”

“These therapy gardens we’ve built around the county have been the sparkling stars of everything we’ve ever done in this foundation,” Austin said. “All gardening is therapy … an extremely calming act.”

Whether someone’s dealing with traumatic stress, violence recovery or an addiction, “this is the most therapeutic place that people can be. And mental health improves,” she said.

Even some among the foundation’s leadership have experienced this effect first hand.

“When you care for gardens, you interact with the land, plants, water, weather and animals such as birds, bees, rabbits and gophers,” Veronica Joaquin, a 3F board member, told Pinal Ways by email. “You care for yourself when you eat the food and you care for your neighbors when you share the food.”

Joaquin is a three-time cancer survivor who believes that the benefits of the food grown by 3F are even more impactful when they are shared.

“I especially enjoy sharing the antioxidant foods that are produced and shared by 3F,” she said. “I also love to share harvests with the people in my village (Florence Tohono O’odham Village), especially the elders, who really appreciate receiving food that our people ate long before we had health issues like diabetes and heart disease. As we all navigate this pandemic, the work of 3F is more important than ever in providing healthy food to others in need.”

Austin has witnessed the effect home-grown gardens can have amongst several others who have worked alongside 3F as well.

When the retired military men known as Team Rubicon came to volunteer with 3F weeks ago, the leader told Austin he suffers from both a brain injury and post-traumatic stress, and expressed interest in a backyard garden for himself. Residents of an alcohol treatment center found gardening to be “a great distraction. They’d jump up and run to an AA meeting and run right back and ask, ‘How’s my squash?’ You can’t just take their bottle away, you’ve got to give them something else to do, some other purpose in life,” Austin said.

There is another benefit too, she pointed out; “your humanity comes out” in gardening. Holding seeds in their hands is something humans have loved to do for thousands of years in their constant relationship with the Earth, she said. “It is our definite goal to do more of those (gardens).”

Growing in the desert

In its last harvest season, 3F delivered three tons of food to 19 places, including food banks around Pinal County, Florence Village, the Randolph Community Juneteenth Celebration and others. “We just got maybe the last harvest out of our one-acre garden at Randolph. And that went to Hope International in Coolidge. They were so happy to get something grown right there in their own town.”

Three tons sounds like a lot of food, but it should’ve been more. Some favorites, like peppers, tomatoes and green beans didn’t grow well. “We’ve seen cycles — certain years you have a bumper crop of one thing and very little of another, and it’s erratic,” Austin said. She hopes to talk to more local farmers for advice on growing in the desert in drought conditions.

Perhaps adding to the challenge, 3F is committed to organic growing practices, which means avoiding chemicals.

“That’s tough to stand by because we have had a weed invasion like nobody’s business,” she said. “We’ve had to plow over our winter garden at Randolph twice … so we are now looking at three or four ways of innovative weed control. That’s another thing I’d like to talk to the farmers about. But they use chemicals, a lot of them, and we’re not going to (apply chemicals), period.”

They’re also devoted to low-till methods. Austin said the soil is alive with probiotics, and “we are really getting smarter on soil quality, soil maintenance. We’re very grateful for the aged powdered cow manure we get from the Dugan family. And that stuff is liquid gold to us. All we use is Arizona dirt and aged powdered cow manure. It creates stunningly wonderful organic soil.

“There’s a real reason we grow organic food,” Austin continued. “It helps to break the cycle of poverty. Bad nutrition leads to the problems of poverty, and poverty then breeds bad nutrition. I think poor people have a right to eat well. … you think clearer, you’re physically fit, you drop the obesity, you’re a better-producing citizen (and) you probably won’t stay poor for long.

“Education comes with eating right,” she said. “The effect is just magical.”

A big part of eating right is consuming foods in their natural state — or as close to their natural state as possible. The color has been bred out of some foods, but 3F strives to bring it back. “We like the exotic-colored food — the nutrition follows the color. When your mom said eat your green and red vegetables, it was for a reason.”

Improving the land

Joaquin said when 3F first obtained permission to grow a big community garden in Randolph, the land didn’t look like much. A community effort changed all that.

“We stared at the lot first, not knowing if anything would actually grow there, and then began to clear the lot of weeds and other debris, and put up a chain-link fence around it at the same time. It took a lot of hard work with many volunteers pitching in,” she said. “Eventually, the land was prepared and we planted the garden and later harvested the wonderful vegetables there. Looking at the garden today, and the volume of food it produces, one could never imagine what it looked like on that first day. It definitely was a group effort from all involved and we were inspired and driven, knowing that in the future, the garden would give others access to nutritious food.”

As the nonprofit begins its second decade, Joaquin said she hopes it continues to grow food and encourages others to grow their own food as well. PW

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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