Ajo growing own produce in food desert

The small, rural town of Ajo, Arizona, was once a food desert. But now, thanks to the “Get Going, Get Growing” gardening initiative, the town has plenty of options for locally grown organic food.

“We’ve got the one supermarket and that’s pretty much it,” said Erich Ecker, an intern in the program. “So if you wanted to buy organic and everything before all this came to be there was not a lot of options. You had to drive to Phoenix or Tucson.”

The “Get Going, Get Growing” program, also known as 4G, has helped build and maintain gardens throughout Ajo.

“I’ve learned a lot of valuable skills. Maybe if it doesn’t come to fruition as a job it’s at least something I know now and something I can do on my own at my own home,” Ecker said.

Internships are offered as a part of Ajo’s workforce development program, providing people ages 16 to 24 with what is often their first job.

The three 4G interns are each assigned a garden. There they are paired with mentors and learn all aspects of gardening including planting and harvesting, irrigation, fence installations and food preparation.

“We have youth that maybe see the only path to success as escaping, getting out of Ajo and so we’re really looking for ways to build the local economy, to encourage entrepreneurs,” said Aaron Cooper, the director of economic development programs for the International Sonoran Desert Alliance.

This former food desert now has multiple gardens. The produce is sold at the local farmers market, donated to the food pantry and even used in the cafeteria at the elementary school.

“Growing it yourself, it tastes better and you get your hands dirty and you actually know what you’re putting in,” said Abbileigh Morris, the program coordinator for 4G. “You know what kind of seeds and where they came from, how to plant it. Now days we don’t know where our food comes from.”

“It’s really cool for a lot of people being able to plant stuff and then harvest it and eat it on their own,” Ecker said.

The Get Going, Get Growing program had a successful Kickstarter campaign last spring. The money raised is used to pay the 4G interns and to keep the program running.

You can donate to the program through the International Sonoran Desert Alliance Ajo Works website.