Border Youth Heal the Land and Culture

Editor’s Note: The second in a series of new articles on sustainable farming and economics in the Paso del Norte border region.


Valerie Hernandez and Jailin Escobedo kneel on the weedy ground, pulling up pesky plants so a clump of tomatoes will have breathing space. A light but steady rain falls on this parched land, seeming at last to herald the start of the summer monsoon season in the heat-soaked Paso del Norte region of the U.S-Mexico border.  Their words conveying determination, the two young women say they like working at La Semilla Food Center’s 14-acre farm in the southern New Mexico community of Anthony.

“I’m happy here because I’m with the plants now,” declares Jailin, a 15-year-old who attends Santa Teresa High School. “Plants are something we can’t live without; the food- it’s something everybody needs.”
A graduate of Gadsden High School’s Class of 2014, Valerie plans on attending Dona Ana Community College to study radiology. But the 18-year-old also enjoys working the land. “I like being outdoors,” she says. “It’s fun to grow your own food.”

Bundled up to protect their bodies from mosquitoes and the elements, Valerie and Jailin have spent the summer as La Semilla apprentices. As such, the two Dona Ana County residents are part of a multi-faceted La Semilla project to involve youth in farming, food justice and healthy living.

Tracing its roots to the Las Cruces-based Colonias Development Council’s youth gardens project a few years back, the Anthony farm and youth projects have proven popular among the area’s young people, according to Cristina Dominguez Eshelman, La Semilla’s farm director and co-founder of the non-profit organization.

Preceding a possible, paid apprenticeship that lasts three months, interested teens complete a training program called “Raices de Tradicion y Salud,” which in English translates as “Roots of Tradition and Health.”
Last year’s kick-off program lasted 15 weeks, but was then modified into two shorter sessions for 2014, Dominguez Eshelman says. Raices program participants are exposed to a comprehensive look at food systems and how they are tied to questions of “equity,” she says.

In 2013, 50 applicants applied for 12 open slots. A year later, the number reached 45 applicants for the 7 slots available for Raices’ first session. Currently, La Semilla is taking applications through August 4 for the year’s second session. In return for their time, the selected applicants are paid a small stipend.

In an age when farming has been a graying profession, the surging interest in La Semilla’s programs is noteworthy. Dominguez Eshelman credits the foodie craze on cable television as well as an interest in health issues as among the drivers behind the youthful attraction to farming and food.

“We tie food to public health. It’s a public health issue,” the rural activist says. “I think the farm is therapeutic. It just doesn’t enhance physical health but emotional and spiritual health.”

While one of La Semilla’s goals is to grow new farmers, Dominguez Eshelman says her organization understands that not all the program participants will go on to become professional tillers of the land. Still, an experience with La Semilla can encourage young people to participate in different ways in our food system.

“There’s a place for everybody to plug in to make this regional food system better,” Dominguez Eshelman insists.

Although the majority of today’s young people are not directly involved in agriculture, many are not so far removed from the land- whether in Mexico or the United States.

For instance, Valerie Hernandez’s grandfather grew up on a farm and migrated to the U.S., where he landed a job at Stahmann Farms, the huge pecan orchard near Las Cruces which also once produced cotton and geese. Her dad worked in dairies, helped out other farmers and then found a job with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, the agency which distributes Rio Grande water to southern New Mexico growers.
Jailin Escobedo says her grandfather likewise had a farm in Mexico. And her mom taught the young girl all about herbs and their healing qualities. Jailin was so captivated that she now wants to become a curandera, or traditional healer.

“It’s something people are losing touch with,” she says. “They’re losing their culture. It’s real sad.”

The apprentices’ mentor, Cristina Dominguez Eshelman, also has familial connections to the land. She recalls hearing about members of her father’s family picking cotton in Texas decades ago, and remembers her dad working on farms in El Paso’s Lower Valley.

A 2002 graduate of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, the El Paso-born Dominguez Eshelman later completed an apprenticeship of her own with the University of California at Santa Cruz’s acclaimed agro-ecology program.

She says the Santa Cruz experience gave her good ideas about engaging young adults and adapting the fundamentals of ecological agriculture to the Paso del Norte region.

“The apprenticeship was a great model of what is possible both production wise and providing experiential educational opportunities in (sustainable) ag production, but we are very much place based,” Dominguez Eshelman expounds.  “We see the farm as part of a larger effort in the region to further sustainable ag grounded in our geography and Chihuahuan Desert.”

In the summer of 2014, Jailin and Valerie learned a lot about farming and the bigger economic system connected to it. Along with about 100 other young people from across the U.S.,  La Semilla’s apprentices attended the Rooted in Community conference held earlier this month in Albuquerque.

Both teens say they were especially struck by a presentation on the long struggle of Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker organization which has waged tenacious battles against human trafficking, wage theft and other abuses in the fields.

A hallmark of the movement has been the boycotts and campaigns in support of better farm labor conditions against Taco Bell, Wendy’s and other big chains that contract tomatoes with growers.

“(Workers) are treated as slaves and forced in trailers without ventilation and not allowed to leave,” Valerie says. “And they’re paid such low wages.”

As part of the Albuquerque gathering, the young conference attendees staged a march on a local Wendy’s.

Back on the Anthony farm, with their hands in the dirt, Valerie and Jailin learn lessons like the labor-intensive nature of pesticide-free farming or the importance of bedding in growing crops.  Plotted on land donated by Sierra Vista Growers, the farm is undergoing a rehabilitation process caused by the historic “monocropping” of cotton, Dominguez Eshelman says.

While much of the land is cover-cropped to replenish the soil, La Semilla supplies the market with spinach-like malabar, cherry tomatoes and strong-smelling basil harvested from a hoop house. La Semilla has access to Rio Grande water but relies on a well that is powered by a solar panel, says Jonathan Lessing, the Anthony farm’s manager.

An agriculture graduate of Missouri’s Truman State University, Lessing says he planned to pursue a career working on hunger issues in Africa but instead wound up in the Paso del Norte after he saw the La Semilla job opening on the Internet and submitted a successful application for the position.

Taking the reporter on a hoop house tour, the 25-year-old Lessing readily acknowledges that groundwater makes the difference on the farm.

“We wouldn’t be growing anything without the well,” he says. In an arid environment, access to water is paramount for La Semilla’s farm .

Consequently, Lessing shows how the hoop house uses scarce water efficiently by employing drip irrigation, creating a plant canopy to reduce evaporation and mulching the soil.
“It’s all about the water, whatever you can do to preserve water.” The smiling young man affirms. “We do a lot to build soil capacity to hold water.. you can see a pretty dramatic difference between an area that is mulched and not mulched.”

The hoop house is a year-round operation, with the crop plantings timed to keep a steady supply of product flowing to La Semilla’s primary market outlet: the Downtown Art and Farmers Market in the Union Plaza District of El Paso.

The 2014 growing season has been a challenging one, Lessing says, suspecting that the high temperatures yielded some stunted plant growth. “Not to mention trying to do labor when it’s 100 degrees outside is not too pleasant,” he adds.

But La Semilla has another asset right at the farm’s boundary. At a ranch next door, more than a dozen frolicking horses, including several new-borns, pause at the fence and gaze at the people talking on the farm.
“They’re super friendly,” Lessing says of his four-legged pals. “It kind of adds a nice aesthetic.”

The frisky creatures are also very productive, and the operators of the horse-breeding farm generously donate eight or nine cubic yards of manure to La Semilla every week. “It’s kind of our free fertilizer,” Lessing chuckles.  Without it we’d be buying a lot of compost.”

Seated in her headquarters across a country highway from the farm, Dominguez Eshelman sketches out how Las Semilla’s farm and youth programs form part of bigger strategy to build a new regional food system based on local production, grassroots economics and social justice.

In addition to the Raices and apprenticeship programs, La Semilla recently held a one-week summer camp for children between the ages of 5 and 13.

“They cut herbs and they learned about herbs’ medicinal properties and they made tea bags,” Dominguez Eshelman explains.

On an ongoing basis, La Semilla sponsors public workshops and cooking clubs, oversees seven school gardens and contributes to cultural reaffirmation and revival by growing marigolds for the annual Dead of the Dead celebration. Regionally, the organization is involved in shaping an emerging public food policy. During the months of April and May, La Semilla estimates that its activities reached at least 2,200 area students.
For running the farm and its other programs, La Semilla’s 2013 operational budget amounted to about $566,000.

Funding to get La Semilla up and running has come from the Kellogg Foundation, the United States Department of Agriculture, the United Way and other private donors and foundations.  Dominguez Eshelman says one goal is meet program expenses through the sales proceeds from the El Paso Downtown Art and Farmers Market.

The varied work requires partners with distinct specialties and skills, ranging from New Mexico State University’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences to the Saturday morning market in El Paso where La Semilla’s harvest is sold.

In many ways, Anthony is an ideal place for La Semilla, a project whose name means “the seed” in English. The small town is situated between Las Cruces, New Mexico, and the sister cities of El Paso-Ciudad Juarez.

“Anthony is sort of a midpoint between the urban spaces,” Dominguez Eshelman mulls. “We still have a lot of farmland here. They’re still families that have been farming for several generations.”

Although Valerie Hernandez and Jailin Escobedo will be heading back to school soon, the young growers say they will continue on with La Semilla. For Cristina Dominguez Eshelman, working with young people like Valerie and Jailin is the most rewarding part of the job. “Watching them grow as they grow things is incredibly powerful,” La Semilla’s farm leader says.

Jailin sums up her summer on the land: “It’s made me realize it’s not an easy job.” “It’s a hard job, but at the end you see something positive and you’re not only helping yourself but the earth-taking care of her.”

-Kent Paterson

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