The new local culinary scene in America is about more than the great food trucks, farmers’ markets, and craft beer. We have seen inspired local food and agriculture efforts all over the country during our far-flung adventures for The Atlantic’s American Futures project, which is kicking off its new season this month.
Through the remainder of this election year, my husband Jim and I will be reporting on the way that issues so bitterly contested in the national election play themselves out city by city, family by family. This installment is about how the local food movement, often assumed to be one more feature of upscale urban life, is taking hold and changing prospects in a remote desert town with very modest financial resources, and with a long history of the health problems that arise from poor nutrition.
Ajo, Arizona, the small desert community we have visited several times and written about for American Futures, offers something unique: a thriving local agriculture and food movement in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. For starters, conditions are about as challenging as you can imagine: desert temperatures with freezes in the winter and 110 degrees in the summer; poor soil with low organic and microbial content, high alkalinity and caliche (a natural cement); and four inches of rainfall annually, often arriving in downpours.
Undeterred, the active Ajo community pooled their energy and opportunities to build an intricate, cooperative network around food. Cooperating together in this town of only a few thousand people are the school, the clinic, local gardeners, the farmers’ market, local restaurants, the town’s grocery store, student interns, adult volunteers, the food bank, the CSA, and the anchor of the Sonoran Desert Conference Center, with its spaces for gardens, a chicken coop, celebratory events, teaching and demonstration space, and a newly-finished commercial kitchen. I think I have covered them all!
The Ajo Regional Food Partnership, established in 2009, pulls nearly all these efforts under its umbrella. One of the showpieces is the garden space at the Sonoran Desert Conference Center. We first visited the center in the winter of 2015, when crews were busy renovating the former classrooms of the former Ajo elementary school into rooms for overnight guests. The classrooms surround gardens in a central outdoor space. The gardens were also a work-in-progress when we first visited; a few were already producing a few rows of crops. The rest of the space remained hardscrabble dirt, and was impossible to imagine becoming fertile.
On our next visit, we stayed in one of the first newly-completed rooms, lonesome but promising. By our last visit, the center was bustling: Every room was occupied, hosting a spillover conference in Phoenix of grantees from Artplace America, a funding organization for locally-based artistic efforts. We ate communal meals assembled in the center’s new commercial kitchen, gathered around the evening campfire to talk and drink wine, watched a performance of Mexican dancing by little local kids, and kept a lookout for the nocturnal javelina to scuttle through the grounds. Roosters tried to wake us from their home by the chicken coops in the mornings.
Volunteers were working in the gardens, and later in the week, assembling produce to sell at Saturday’s farmers’ market in the plaza. We stopped by on our way out of town, filling our bags with jalapeño bread, still hot and steamy from overnight ovens, marmalades from local citrus, and regrets that we couldn’t carry the fresh veggies or eggs. What began as mostly dabbler’s efforts in the market has matured to earning a living for a number of people.