Just when it looked like a community garden project on Valencia County’s east side was going to whither away, a $30,000 grant from CYFD gave it another year of life.

Days after Valencia County commissioners unanimously voted to not provide $15,000 for the Eastern Valencia Urban Gardens Program, administered by the staff of the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District, the award of the CYFD grant to Youth Development Inc. and the district was announced.

“We had applied for it, thinking of it as our Plan B,” said VSWCD district director Andrew Hautzinger. “Who could imagine the county wouldn’t fund it?”

He continued, saying the district was relieved to get the grant, which would give the program another year to look for more permanent funding.

“Hopefully we can make this a permanent feature in the eastern part of the county,” he said. “That is the end game — to have it be a self-sustaining project with community ownership.”

Courtesy of the Eastern Valencia Community Garden Program
The community garden in Meadow Lake in 2016.

The EVUGP began five years ago, with a $45,000 grant from the National Association of Conservation Districts. VSWCD board member Teresa Smith de Cherif applied for the grant, which established urban, community gardens in the Meadow Lake and El Cerro Mission communities.

The funding paid for supplies and part of VSWCD conservation program manager Lindsey Diaz’ salary. The gardens were established at the east side community centers with the county’s permission.

However, the history of the county’s commitment to the project is a bit hazy. According to Hautzinger, when he made his funding request to the commissioners at the April 21 meeting, the county was supposed to be the lead agency for the project, not the district.

“This is a five-year program that we started together. The original request was for the district to be the fiscal agent for the grant and the county would be the lead agency, but that turned out not to be the case and the county handed leadership over to the district,” he said. “The gardens have been running through a grant that has now timed out and we are looking for support from the county as an important partner.”

The five-year grant ends June 30, which led the district to request $15,000 from the county to continue operations for another year. That money would have paid for two garden manager positions who would oversee the gardens and coordinate the produce donation program.

“In years four and five, the gardens produced more than 2,500 pounds of fresh produce. Some, the youth employees sold, but most was donated back to the community and ended up on people’s tables.”

Courtesy of the Eastern Valencia Community Garden Program
The community garden in Meadow Lake in 2021.

Hautzinger said the program also employed 15 local youth who are paid by stipends provided by YDI.

Commissioner Joseph Bizzell asked Hautzinger where he could see the district’s budget, since there seemed to be a conflict about how much funding was available to the district.

During the public comments at that meeting, Newt McCarty, the former Valencia County Extension agricultural agent, indicated the district had a budget of $500,000 and should dig a little deeper before asking the county to contribute additional taxpayer dollars to the garden project.

Hautzinger said the district’s budget was about $350,000 — $335,000 coming from a quarter mill levy and an additional $15,000 from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.

“Newt doesn’t know our budget. He guessed. Do you know the budget of all your partners?” Hautzinger asked the commissioners. “We’re at a point where we don’t have much wiggle room in this coming budget.”

The commissioner also asked what was done with the money from the produce sales and whether the district had records of what was sold. Hautzinger said the money was used to buy garden supplies.

“What is taken in is not on the magnitude of even hundreds of dollars,” he said. “When these youth employees sell the produce, they get a chance to interface with the public and see those funds go back into community assets to improve the garden. These are important business lessons being provided to the youth.”

Commissioner Jhonathan Aragon said while he saw the benefits of the program, he didn’t remember a formal request for a partnership coming to the commission.

“We do a lot of partnerships with a lot of other entities but $15,000 here and $15,000 there puts a strain on us,” Aragon said.

Even if it was a one-time allocation of $15,000, Commissioner David Hyder said the commissioners’ constituents would want an explanation of the use.

“There are maybe five (people) in each district in favor but probably 25,000 who aren’t,” Hyder said as he made a motion to deny the funding support.

The CYFD grant will go towards funding two part-time garden managers, a stipend for an education intern, 10 percent of Diaz’ salary and supplies for programming.

YDI was awarded a $30,000 small purchase contract by the Next Generation Fund, which is administered under the auspices of the CYFD Children’s Trust Fund.

With this funding YDI will hire youth interns ages 14 to 18 to lead in the production of community gardens in east Valencia County, implement a Kids’ Gardening Program for children ages 5 to 13, and provide at least one educational gardening community event geared towards families.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.