“People Growing Together” is the motto for Growing Independence, a non-profit project that aims to help provide Sierra County with food security by encouraging and teaching its residents to grow their own organic produce.
Project founder Amin Dawdy recounted when he came up with the idea of the project around 2019. He realized that Sierra County needs to prepare for a possible “crisis” of food scarcity if climate change drastically affects agricultural production.
Project manager Tracy McGowan stated the necessity for an alternative resource in the event Sierra County can’t supply enough food for its communities. She also said the project wants to address a lack of organic produce in local grocery stores.
“People are still having to drive to Las Cruces or Albuquerque in order to get a wide variety of organic produce with nutritious value,” McGowan stated.
To provide a solution to these issues, McGowan said Growing Independence is doing a “five-year plan” to raise enough money to build 10 earth battery-powered greenhouses throughout Truth or Consequences. “The greenhouses will serve two purposes. First, they will grow local organic produce for sale at a reasonable cost. The other is to provide our local food banks with food,” McGowan said.
McGowan said the greenhouses will allow the project to sell produce not commonly grown in New Mexico in winter and the heat of summer. She acknowledged how greenhouses in T or C typically get too hot to grow any non-native plant not accustomed to dry heat.
The earth-battery methodology regulates temperature in a greenhouse by circulating air cooled by the soil beneath the greenhouse. Dawdy said the method makes the greenhouse affordable to operate as it only uses a small amount of electricity to power the air pumps and fans.
Principal grower Lucile Zimmerman has been growing organic vegetables for 42 years in multiple climates. She explained how she grows non-native plant starts that are tolerant of New Mexico’s dry heat.
“The plants get climatized to 100 degrees, which means they are out in sunlight and learn to be tolerant of excessive [dry] heat,” Zimmerman explained. “Plants that are being grown in Alabama [where it is subtropically humid] and sold here are going to go into shock from the heat. These plant starts aren’t going to do that.”
Sierra Countians may purchase Growing Independence’s acclimated plant starts at the People Growing Together store at 417 N. Broadway St. in T or C.
Once the project builds its own greenhouses, McGowan said Growing Independence will sell produce instead of asking for donations to support the project. Growing Independence’s prices for organic produce will be cheaper than the prices in bigger markets, because, she explained, the project will not incur handling, packing, shipping and tracking costs.
“All that kind of stuff adds money to your vegetables when you go into the store.” McGowan said, noting that this is the reason why many Sierra Countians can’t afford organic produce. By offering affordable fresh vegetables, Growing Independence will promote better nutrition here.
Although the project is still in its first stages, according to Dawdy, he and his volunteer team were able to recently raise $12,000 in donations. Growing Independence used $10,000 of those funds to purchase a half-acre land for its first greenhouse, to be built on Corzine Street in T or C.
Education is another key element of Growing Independence’s mission. Zimmerman shares what she knows about organic gardening with everyone who purchases plant starts. The goal is to show people that it is possible to grow their own food.
“Teaching people how to grow and resolve certain problems with what they are growing is what we are trying to do,” she said. “So, when they get more comfortable with the idea, they start making space [for organic produce] in either the Community Garden [in T or C] or their personal garden.” Zimmerman said.
To further the goal of educating the community, Growing Independence is in discussion with Truth or Consequences Municipal Schools about implementing a small program to teach students how to grow produce. If the program is launched, students who show an interest may be employed in one of the project’s greenhouses.
Since starting six months ago, McGowan said the project is growing fast. So fast, that the team can sometimes be “overwhelmed” by its progress. She said the main thing Growing Independence needs right now is more helping hands. “As people come on board,” McGowan stressed, “then we can truly talk about expanding the operation.”
Those interested in volunteering or donating may call 575-223-0989, visit the People Growing Together storefront or drop by the Growing Independence booth at the Sierra County Farmers Market, held every Saturday in T or C’s Ralph Edwards Park.
While Growing Independence is making good headway, Dawdy said he expects it will take a long time to reach the project’s end goals. “[Our project] isn’t going to be done overnight,” he said. “Educating the town but also educating the next generation is important for us, and we are going to do what can to accomplish that.”
Clarification: A reader has inquired whether Growing Independence has certified organic status both as a plant nursery and as a food producer. GI’s volunteer leaders plan to apply for this federal certification for their still-to-be-built earth-battery greenhouse. They currently follow organic growing methods at their storefront and plots at T or C’s community garden. The Farmers Market Coalition has posted on its website a brief tutorial on the proper use of the word organic by small nurseries and produce growers.