By Christian Hill

The Register-Guard

PUBLISHED: 12:00 A.M., MAY 12

Growing together

Huerto de la Familia tends Willamalane community garden

SPRINGFIELD — Roberto Peralta last week looked at his half-planted garden plot with its leafy starts of lettuce and kale. Not long ago, Peralta observed, he would have thought the plot was small.

But the three seasons he and his wife, Catalina Angeles, spent gardening have changed his perspective.

“It’s small if you want to play football,” he joked. “If you want to grow vegetables, it’s hard work.”

Now it’s the community garden around the plot the couple tends that has grown.

The Eugene nonprofit organization Huerto de la Familia is managing the largest community garden developed by the Willamalane Park and Recreation District . The organization, started in 1999, helps Latino families grow their own food and start small farm and food-related businesses.

Willamalane constructed the nearly one-acre garden near Gamebird Park on land owned by the Springfield School District. Willamalane is not paying the school district for use of the property, Willamalane Superintendent Bob Keefer said.

The new garden is about twice the size of the less visible site that Huerto de la Familia families tended on the same property. It also offers a major upgrade with fencing, electricity, irrigation, a new tool shed and a patio area still to be built. The Twin Rivers Rotary Club constructed eight raised garden beds for use by people with disabilities. Willamalane estimated the garden cost about $50,000.

The water was connected about two weeks ago, and families have begun preparing their plots for crops.

The garden offers Latino families more than low-cost, nutritious food. It offers them time with family and the chance to pass on to their children a heritage steeped in agriculture, said Joanna Lovera, Huerto de la Familia’s garden program manager.

Peralta, the organization’s board president, agrees. “You can see kids and their whole families working together,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s a place they can connect to their roots with the community.”

“It’s something to share time with the family,” said Ma Fernandez, with Lovera translating. “There’s nothing like eating what you grow yourself.”

Fernandez brought her daughter-in-law and grandson to help prepare their plot last week.

Lovera said the garden also raises the visibility of Huerto de la Familia — Spanish for “the family garden” — and will encourage interaction between different cultures.

Del Sanders, who is tending a plot with his wife, Gianna, and their 10-year-old daughter, said he’s interested in learning what crops south of the border could grow well in Lane County while passing on the knowledge he gleaned growing up on a farm.

“What do they bring that we can enjoy, and what can we show them?” he asked rhetorically.

The crops also will provide a bounty for the family’s limited food budget, his wife said.

“Hot dogs are cheap. Top Ramen is cheap,” she said. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are not.”

Huerto de la Familia has four community gardens in the Eugene-Springfield area. The gardens serve 65 of the organization’s families, but the produce also goes to friends and families and is donated to the community. Lovera said families estimate they save $300 to $600 a year in food cost growing their own produce.

Thirty-three of the new community garden’s 59 plots are reserved for Huerto de la Familia families, with the rest available to the public on a first-come, first reservation basis.

Huerto de la Familia will manage the community garden for a six-month trial period. If both parties are satisifed, the agreement will automatically extend to Feb. 1 and then can be renewed.

Joel Miller, Willamalane’s park services manager, said the partnership made sense because the organization was already on-site and had the gardening expertise. Another plus is that Huerto de la Familia is a small organization with low overhead, allowing it to keep down the cost of a garden plot.

“They were a perfect match for us,” he said.

The fee for a plot is $10 per year for Huerto de la Familia families. For the public, the annual cost is $20 for a small plot and $30 for a large plot. Willamalane is offering financial help to reduce the cost for those residents who can’t afford it.

“Anybody is welcome,” Miller said. “You shouldn’t be restricted because you can’t afford the plot. Those are the people who need them the most.”

The new community garden is the first of two that Willamalane pledged to develop when voters approved a $20 million bond measure in 2012. The second will be developed at Dorris Ranch in the coming years.

FOOD for Lane County and a program that teaches job skills to students with disabilities also grow produce on the school district-owned property.

Now walking the short distance between Huerto De la Familia’s old and new garden sites, Peralta is struck by the quality of the new digs.

Peralta grew up in Mexico City and didn’t learn about gardening until a few years ago, in part to teach his daughter about growing and healthy eating habits. He and his wife waited three years until a plot became available; there’s already a waiting list for plots reserved for Huerto de la Familia.

“It’s a blessing that comes from everyone,” he said.

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