July 27, 2022 532 PM
MARFA — Rows of neatly planted vegetables and fruits lined on either side with recycled burlap sacks — swiss chard, asparagus, raspberries, tomatoes, and more — are carefully tended to by Marfa Food Pantry Garden volunteers who churn out fresh produce year round for food pantry clients.
Wooden stakes mounted in the soil help volunteer gardeners keep track of what was planted where and when, and drip irrigation lines allow for twice daily watering. In one section of the garden, where sunflowers soar above the crops, new-and-improved compost piles can be found.
Peggy O’ Brien, a volunteer who has been instrumental in the creation of the Food Pantry Garden over the past three years, said this summer’s extreme heat was certainly taking a toll on the plants — which may become more susceptible to pests due to weather conditions — but in general, Marfa’s climate makes for a productive, year-round growing season.
“The heat is so good that we can expand the season in either direction. We cover everything because of the pests and the extremities of the heat or cold. So we’ve been able to start crops earlier and let them grow later,” said O’Brien.
The garden maintains a few crops that grow throughout the year, but most are routinely rotated out. This past Saturday, volunteers worked to remove green bean plants to make way for a new crop of lettuces. Whenever possible, volunteers try to utilize the companion plant strategy, which involves placing plants that benefit one another in close proximity or planting them in succession on a certain row, like kale and lettuces or beets and onions. O’Brien has been keeping a detailed log for the past few years since the inception of the garden in order to keep track of which crops are the most successful.
The garden doesn’t use any pesticides and is all organic, with volunteers bringing in ladybugs to help tackle the aphid invasion, for example, in lieu of chemical insecticides. For the handful of regular volunteers like O’Brien, working in the garden is therapeutic and provides a sense of satisfaction knowing the food they are helping grow is going to help their fellow community members.
“I’d love to spend more time because the more time you spend the better you feel. Because it is very restorative actually being in the soil,” said O’Brien.
“This is something that I can tangibly do that directly impacts the community, so that’s really what I’m here for,” said volunteer Alexis Smith who toiled in the sun last week harvesting kale into a basket for a food pantry distribution.
Garden volunteers are continuously harvesting produce for food pantry distributions, which take place once a month on the third Thursday, but also contribute surplus produce to Marfa Harvest, a collaborative effort between the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, Judd Foundation and Marfa Food Pantry to bring locally-grown goods to food pantry clients in between distributions.
Genevieve Bassham, executive director of the food pantry, said last week they were able to provide quality vegetables and fruit, such as peaches and plums from trees on their grounds, to local families who showed up for the distribution.
“I’m really grateful for all the volunteers because that’s hard work. It has really been hot when they’ve [been out] there harvesting and so I really appreciate them,” said Bassham.
Bassham said they currently have a lot of people utilizing the food pantry, around 120 families, and she will have to up her grocery order significantly for next month’s distribution. The food pantry relies on food donations and monetary donations that allow them to purchase additional items like rice, beans and canned goods. Bassham said the uptick in registrants might have something to do with how inflation is affecting food prices.
“Grocery prices are so expensive right now, so I am very pleased that we’re able to do what we do at the Marfa Food Pantry,” said Bassham, who originally helped start the organization around thirty years ago.
Over the decades, Bassham said, the food pantry has experienced mostly repeat customers, though there was an uptick during the COVID-19 pandemic. She tries to always provide enough food for households that may be intergenerational or hosting extended family. Bassham originally only planned on running the food pantry for about six months while it got off the ground, but years later she’s still at the helm. While she’s still enjoying her duties, she said one day it will be time for the next generation to step in.
“I thought I’ll just keep on doing it until I find somebody [but] nobody has ever volunteered to take it over, which is okay. I probably won’t give it up until I have to. I’m not getting young[er] so who knows what’s gonna happen next,” said Bassham.
Marfa Food Pantry Garden volunteer Melody Bowers is helping bring the nonprofit operation into the future by maintaining a waste-reducing compost program — her efforts have earned her the nicknames “the compost queen” and “the compost witch.” In addition to a rainwater catchment system, the garden is outfitted with a structured area for compost piles that were falling by the wayside until Bowers, who has been living in Marfa and Nashville on and off for the past 10 years, decided to give them a sorely-needed overhaul.
An experienced composter, Bowers thought such a large garden could surely benefit and maintain productive compost and she got to work in earnest this fall, learning how to work within Marfa’s dry climate to create a healthy, functioning compost system. Through a lot of trial and error, she figured out how to balance levels of food scrap waste, coffee grounds, twigs and dried leaves, garden refuse and animal waste to make compost, which is then put back into the garden in the form of soil. She said it’s important to water the compost piles frequently, and because they are properly maintained they are not odorous and don’t attract pests.
“I have a whole routine and it’s so satisfying to see that it’s working — there were two super piled-up wheelbarrows full of these green bean plants that would have just gone to the dump,” said Bowers.
She’s collected various forms of waste from around the community for the Food Pantry Garden compost, including llama feces from Marfa Maid cheese farm, coffee grounds from community gardener Bob Schwab, who picks the waste up from local coffee shops, and even the Presidio County Courthouse, which donates shredded paper.
“To me the most satisfying thing is all the pieces of the community that go into this, not just the garden,” said Bowers.
But keeping the compost “cooking,” maintaining the correct temperature, and more is a daunting task. Bowers, while chopping up waste into smaller pieces, gave herself tennis elbow. Now she tries to save her arm by assigning the task to a volunteer willing to wield a machete, she said. The first compost harvest yielded 15 barrels full of rich soil that was put back into helping produce food for the garden. Bowers was shocked to have produced that amount in so little time, she said.
“That, to me, was my validation that everything was going to come together and work. I’ve been able to keep up with all of the spring garden refuse like we have. There’s nothing piled up over there right now,” said Bowers.
Some local foundations have reached out to Bowers to express their interest in starting their own compost programs, she said. She hopes to be able to expand the practice around town and teach individuals how to manage their own compost. The bonafide “compost queen,” who, due to night owl tendencies, often works by moonlight at the garden, said her involvement with the group began as a way to stay connected during the pandemic but has become more meaningful over time.
“In times of uncertainty we do strange things, and I figured there’s something so satisfying about taking trash and turning it into something alive and useful and good. It’s a very small thing that allows me to feel like I have little control over the corner of the universe I live in and allows me to communicate with people and be a part of the community.”
To make a donation to the Marfa Food Pantry, visit marfafoodpantry.com/make-a-donation
Volunteer at the Marfa Food Pantry Garden from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays and 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays. If you are a community gardener who would like to contribute vegetables, please bring them to the Food Pantry Garden on Wednesdays between 4 and 6 p.m. so they can be added to the Marfa Harvest distribution for Food Pantry clients.