The seeds of independence

by Luis Rios | July 22, 2021
5 min read
Plant starts are acclimatized to Sierra County's dry heat in the back of the People Growing Together store in downtown Truth or Consequences to be sold there and at the Sierra County Farmers Market to people interested in growing their own organic produce. Photograph by Luis Rios

“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.

Growing Independence’s storefront at 417 N. Broadway Street in T or C. The project recently raised $12,000, which will allow it to construct its first earth battery-powered greenhouse off South Broadway on Corzine Street. Photograph by Luis Rios.

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.”

Project founder Amin Dawdy (left), principal grower Lucille Zimmerman and volunteer Carol Borsello (right) dedicate their Saturdays to staffing Growing Independence’s booth at the Sierra County Farmers Market, where they offer gardening advice to people who buy plant starts. Photograph by Luis Rios

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.


Luis Rios is the Sun’s summer intern. This fall he will enter his senior year at New Mexico State University, where he is majoring in journalism.

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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