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When Comal Heritage Food Incubator launched in 2016, its organizer Focus Points could only dream of the success it had as a restaurant incubator for Denver’s immigrant and refugee immigrants. However, as a nonprofit family resource center dedicated to serving low-income families in the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea (GES) neighborhoods, its mission was far from over. So beginning in 2018, Focus Point administrators sat down to decide what its next program should look like.
According to the City of Denver as well as countless national government organizations, GES is both a food desert, where at least 33 percent of the population live more than 20 miles from the nearest supermarket, and a food swamp, meaning it’s crowded with fast-food chains and convenience stores offering unhealthy eating options. The underserved area, home to many low-income households, refugees, and immigrants, has also had to fight gentrification and air pollution.
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After hearing from the community, Focus Points decided to establish a three-year farming entrepreneurial program, which teaches those from disadvantaged communities how to commercially farm and manage their own agricultural businesses. It was a lucky coincidence that in 2010, Focus Points moved from Five Points to its current Elyria-Swansea home at 48th Avenue and Columbine Street, a property with two acres of land, one of which is farmable. It decided to call the program Huerta Urbana, Spanish for “urban garden.”
Seynabou Sohai, interim senior manager of social enterprise at Focus Points, estimates the program cost $50,000 to get off the ground. It launched its pilot program in July 2020 with four participants and has gradually grown its class size to seven. To date, 12 have enrolled in the program with three (from the first class) graduating in September, and one of Huerta Urbana’s main goals is to expand its impact by maxing out its class size at 15 participants.
The application process is open to anyone interested in learning agriculture and farming, but Huerta Urbana looks for a few key qualifications. “[We] make sure they understand that it’s farming and not gardening,” Sohai says. “We also want to look and see if they’re experiencing any barriers because part of our target audience is to help those that are experiencing significant barriers to get to their dream.” Specific barriers that Huerta Urbana evaluates for are race, income, refugee status, housing and food insecurity, and lack of access to education. For example, current participants include refugees from Venezuela, Mexico, and Spain.
The entire program is offered at no cost to the participants. Instead, they’re compensated with stipends for their time. For example, setting up and running the Huerta Urbana farmers’ market earns the students $120 to $150. In addition to compensation, program administrators try to proactively remove any barriers that students may face such as childcare needs by allowing parents to bring their children to classes and workshops.
On average, the program requires 10 hours per week with seasonal fluctuations to account for growing and harvest seasons. The first year is spent on a traditional, foundational farming curriculum built in partnership with Colorado State University and the Denver Botanic Gardens. “They learn organic methods, they learn soil biology. They learn plant identification, parts of the plant,” Sohai explains. “They learn irrigation systems, how to put them in. They learn about greenhouse systems.”
Much of the planting work is in raised beds at Focus Points, where students plant and harvest everything from tomatoes, peppers, and squashes to blueberries and raspberries. Students also start to learn the business side of farming by helping out at the Huerta Urbana farmers’ market. This year it starts June 9 and is open every Friday from 2–6 p.m. Vendors, who are compensated by Focus Points using funds and grants, sell goods for a suggested price and customers are encouraged to only pay what they can. Past participants have included Rebel Bread and East Denver Food Hub.
Then in their second year, students learn about hydroponics, beekeeping, growing in shipping containers, farm design, and farm management. From there, students can graduate if they are only interested in a farming job and not starting their own business, as the third year of the program is focused on writing business plans, how to access capital and loans, and financial planning and coaching.
Sohai is buoyed by the success so far that the program’s students have found. “We have a mother-and-daughter team that are graduating this year, and they have a cut flower business that has been growing every single year, and one of their goals… is to get a store,” she says. “They’ve gone from a pop-up on the side of the road to growing and having enough income to start thinking seriously about getting a storefront and having a florist business.”
The second sister in the same family also participated in Huerta Urbana’s programming but graduated early to take a position on the Huerta Urbana staff. Sohai and the rest of the team hope the initiative will achieve similar levels of success as Comal. And don’t count out partnerships between the two sister programs. “We are going to do some more farm-to-fork-type curriculum and education across both programs to connect them,” Sohai says. “We’re going to actually build some raised beds for [Comal’s] herbs.” This future partnership along with an expanded controlled environment agriculture curriculum in collaboration with FarmBox Foods and Centura Health point to a bright future for the Huerta Urbana program.