It all happens in a renovated former drug/prostitution house in the city’s La Mesa/Trumbull neighborhood, a part of town once known mostly for its seemingly unstoppable crime rate.
That is exactly why John Bulten, director of East Central Ministries, and his wife, Lynn, chose the former children’s nursery-turned-drug house to start Growing Awareness Urban Farm. It’s surrounded by abandoned cars and you don’t have to look far to see barbed wire or boarded windows. Volunteers say the urban farm and its sister projects are like a ray of sunshine in an otherwise concrete-filled part of town.
And, you may not have known that some of those tomato plants and herbs you’ve purchased this year or in the past couple of years from local nurseries may have their roots in a part of Albuquerque formerly known as the War Zone.
“That was our purpose to … create that change, to help be a part of it. Be a solution to problems of poverty,” Bulten says. “So it kind of reflects our vision of things broken, worn out, not healthy, redeeming … fixing them up and creating opportunities for people to clean themselves up.”
The Growing Awareness Urban Farm has three greenhouses – all of which were built from the frames of old car parts or recycled materials. An estimated 12,000 fruit, vegetable and herb plants – including seven kinds of peppers and 13 varieties of tomatoes – from the farm will be sold to local nurseries that will, in turn, sell them to gardeners. Ollas, underground watering jugs made from clay, also are sold at local nurseries.
The sale of the items helps support the other programs Bulten runs – such as tutoring program for kids, a food co-op, a medical clinic and housing opportunities – as a part East Central Ministries.
Morgan Attema, urban farm manager who has been with the farm for three seasons, says one of her favorite tomato varieties is the chocolate cherry. In addition, she grows hybrids, heirlooms and open-pollinated tomato plants.
Some are for growing in containers and all of them are “for average backyard gardeners,” Bulten says.
Tammy Hayman, owner of Rehm’s Nursery & Garden Center in northeast Albuquerque, says Growing Awareness brings in “some usual and unusual” plant varieties.
“They drive up in a van and we shop out of the van,” Hayman says. “They’ve spoiled my customers with things like the Black Krim tomatoes.”
The ollas have been selling well at Rehm’s since 2005. Hayman explains that the ollas work well in whiskey barrel planters or in spots that need extra watering.
“They’re almost too pretty to plant,” she says. “You bury them to the neck and water seeps (to plants),” Hayman says.
The olla molds are shaped from acorn and gooseneck squash, gourds and bottles, Bulten says. “(It’s) the art of gardening instead of the exact science,” he says.
Recently, Luis Fragoso, a caretaker of the property, as well as an olla-maker, readied molds for firing as Bulten explained that the operation makes 3,000 to 4,000 ollas per season, most of which are sold online and by local and out-of-state nurseries.
On a recent lunch break from her job at Kirtland Air Force Base, Mary Van Scyoc stopped in to buy honey.
She’d bought some before at the ministry’s Common Good Thrift and Consignment store at 2902 Eubank NE, but detoured to the farm because the honey was sold out at the thrift shop. She also bought a dozen eggs.
“The hen was sitting on them,” Van Scyoc says. “They’re still warm. This is kind of a neat thing they’re doing with the community. It’s my small way of helping.”
She’s planning a garden and will be back for plants.
“You can’t get any more in-town than this. I don’t think I’ve had better honey than this,” she says.
Part of neighborhood
A colorful playground is across the street from where the farming takes place, “making it feel more neighborhoodly,” Bulten says.
But, Bulten adds, “We have a large vision for what our community can be. We’re here in the long-term.”
Urban farming involves “finding patches here and there … converting small spaces to edible greenscapes,” Bulten explains. The farming effort is part of a community development plan to offer opportunities to neighbors and to beautify the area, says Bulten.
Bulten, who holds a degree in criminal justice and was a counselor in the juvenile court system in Michigan, says that he started East Central Ministries as an outreach of Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in 1999, around the time when Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits were being cut.
“We don’t try to do just charity,” he says.
And, the ministry doesn’t hold church services.
“There were 27 worshipping services in this area,” he says. “Our focus is not just doing an event but focusing on the neighborhood. We integrate our faith in a little bit of all of it.”
Volunteers make the ministry’s projects possible, Bulten says. Neighbors, students from the University of New Mexico, and home-schoolers donate time working on the farm, and grocery stores such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Sprouts donate food to the word-of-mouth co-op.
Bulten estimates that folks have donated 13,000 hours of their time to the ministry’s programs.