What does it take to boost a local economy, increase community health and be less reliant on outside food sources? According to Nina Sajovec, Co-Founder & Director at Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture, it takes relationships.
How was it possible to create something out of nothing? “Relationships," says Sajovec. "None of it could have happened without relationships.” Sajovec shared her story at the Local First Arizona Foundation Farm & Food Finance Forum at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix. Sajovec demonstrated the power of relationships with yarn. She asked the group to form a circle and pass the yarn around and gather the string if participants had any thing in common with words or phrases she mentioned. After five minutes of passing the yarn, there was an incredible web of connections people had made. Sajovec showed the strength of this web by taking scissors and cutting it. Cut after cut the web remained strong.
In order to reach the small town of Ajo, travelers and suppliers must venture more than 100 miles of untouched desert before seeing any signs of settlement. The small town is home to about 5,000 people with a mixed population of Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and Anglo Americans. The small mining town has been called a “food desert,” because selection of food is scarce and the prices are high. It has also been proclaimed to have some of the worst soil for growing in America.
Many of these factors forced residents of Ajo to travel hundreds of miles for basic necessities that residents of larger cities enjoy every day. In 2009, Sajovec along with other concerned citizens of Ajo worked to establish a local farmers market. The group started out as a weekly effort with a single table to sell items such as vegetables, milk and eggs. The newly formed farmers market then reached out to the owners of the historically renowned town plaza and was invited to host the market there. In the beginning, the owners of the plaza covered insurance for the event and did not charge growers fees to set up. This model worked well for the producers as more and more utilized the market to promote their products.
Initially, stereotypes and assumptions about farmers markets stood as a consumer barrier for much of the population of Ajo. To get past the “fresh is expensive” perception, Sajovec built relationships with local schools, women’s circles and other organizations to inspire people of all backgrounds to participate. WIC, food stamps, and other government SNAP programs are also now accepted at the market to support lower income families. To ensure the participation of youth, there are different fun and interactive childrens' activities each week promoting healthy lifestyles.
Organizations such as Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Ajo Gardeners Network and Ajo Regional Food Partnership developed and strengthened because of the efforts of the farmers market. “Honor the soil (once called the worst growing soil), honor the water, and honor the plants. It was imperative to understand the limitations of the land: You are not going to grow strawberries in Ajo, and that’s ok,” said Sajovec. The market works with youth and residents to encourage and teach the value of growing one’s own food and most importantly being able to take care of Ajo.
From the first table in 2009 to the 60 producers that participate in the farmers markets today, this communal event brings life to the town plaza in the heart of Ajo. An estimated $500 worth of food was sold annually in Ajo before the farmers market. Now, the number has risen to over $30,000 annually with over 8,000 pounds of food traded and grown in and around Ajo each year. Today, over 100 families receive support from the Ajo Growers Network to provide fresh, local and healthy food.
To learn more about how the Local First Arizona Foundation highlights and supports the local foods movement, join us at our next event, The Farmer Chef Connection on September 12th in Tucson.