We had the good fortune of connecting with Leza Carter and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Leza, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
Prior to starting Tucson Village Farm (TVF), I had been working for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe teaching gardening and basic nutrition to kids, teens, and elders, both on the reservation and in the public elementary school adjacent to it. During my time with the tribe, I bore witness to the profound physical and mental health benefits of young people spending time out of doors: moving their bodies, digging, planting, learning, and eating healthy food. I learned through this experience that when kids have a hand in planting, cultivating, and caring for food crops, they eat them. Every time. It is such a simple formula and one that has the potential to prevent and reverse chronic diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. On the current trajectory in Arizona, one in three kids will suffer from type 2 diabetes and 57% will be obese by age 35. My vision was to shift this sobering trajectory to a much healthier one by getting kids out of doors and experiencing first hand that healthy food tastes good. And I wanted to do so on a much larger scale. So I took some time while parenting my young children to think about how I might go about that and after two months of hiking up the Catalina Mts. to the same rock each day to ponder-and listen-the seeds for TVF were sown and there was no going back. Shortly thereafter I developed the TVF model: a sustainably managed, centrally located working urban farm that all kids and schools could have access to. After an 18-month search for land, funding, and partners, our founders broke ground on MLK Day 2010 in front of the Pima County Cooperative Extension in central Tucson. And it’s been a wild ride ever since.
What should our readers know about your business?
Tucson Village Farm is a unique model: it is neither a community garden or a school garden but rather a resource for the entire community. A farm-to-fork model, our goal is to teach kids how to grow, prepare, and eat fresh food. We do this by offering year-round hands-on agriculture and nutrition-based programming, youth leadership opportunities, and culinary programs for kids and families. Each year we deliver 55,000 hours of education to approximately 15,000 individuals, 7,000 of whom arrive by school bus to attend our field-trip program, Growing Forward.. In non-COVID times, everything we do on the farm is with kids. Every kid that comes to the farm plants something and every kid gets to eat something fresh from the farm. We use a “pay it forward” method: when kids come to the farm we tell them “Today your are going to plant something for another child to eat in a few months and you will also get to eat something that another child planted for you a few months ago”. I love seeing kids’ (and adults’!) eyes light up when they make a connection about where their food comes from. When they see the wheat growing and recognize it from the cereal box. Or when they harvest the wheat, thresh and winnow it, mill it on our bicycle powered mill (an old Schwinn from the 70s that we rescued from a dumpster), and take it into the kitchen and make pizza dough with it. Perhaps my favorite time on the farm is carrot harvesting season. Based on the look on their faces, kids might as well be pulling a rabbit out of a hat when they yank that carrot out of the ground. Each year on the farm more than 2,500 kids get to pull a carrot and eat it on site. And that never gets old for me. Another highlight for me personally is seeing families preparing healthy meals together. Through our FARMacy program, we teach low-income families how to prepare healthy meals on a budget, provide strategies for meal planning, reducing stress and screen time, increasing physical activity and mindfulness, and reducing their intake of sugary drinks. With kids and families learning side by side, this critical information goes right back to the home and the grocery store where prevention begins. It is very powerful to see families choosing to incorporate healthier habits into their lives and in so doing choosing a different, healthier future for their kids. Our biggest challenge by far these past 11 years has been funding. Like any charitable organization. we spend much of our time fundraising. Though my best days are when I get to throw on my overalls and be out on the farm, those days are increasingly rare and I find I spend the majority of my time trying to keep our doors open. Although a program of University of Arizona and Pima County Cooperative Extension, we are tasked with sourcing all of our own funding in order to pay our staff, provide scholarships to low-income kids, and maintain the daily operations of the farm. One of the lessons I have learned (and re-learned) along the way is to trust the timing. This is true in all aspects of our lives but with the Farm it has been a particularly challenging one for me. I guess that’s why I have to keep re-learning it!
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I am a nature lover by nature. And Tucson has so much breathtaking wilderness to offer just minutes outside of the city. So, after I brought them to the farm, our next stop would be the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum where we would likely spend an entire day (if you haven’t been, you really must go) walking around the grounds and learning about the flora, fauna, and tremendous biodiversity of our beautiful Sonoran Desert. With any luck this visit would be taking place in February, not July, in which case we would spend much of the week hiking the many trails in the beautiful Catalina Mountains or Saguaro National Park. Catalina State Park, Sabino Canyon, and the Wilderness of Rocks to name a few. I love to cook and I especially love to feed my people, so we would probably eat most of our meals in my backyard by the fountain, and throw in some authentic Mexican when out and about. If time allowed we would zip down to Puerto Penasco in MX for a couple of days to explore the Sea of Cortez. The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
So very many people are deserving of a little credit-or a lot of credit in many cases!-for molding TVF into the thriving education-based farm that it is today. With well over 100 community partners, the list goes on and on. However, I would most like to give a shoutout to our team: Elizabeth, Alex, Natalie, Thom, Becky, George, and David-all of whom have been with the Farm since its first year and several since our groundbreaking day. Working at TVF is a labor of love. No one is bringing home a big paycheck and there is nothing easy about farming in 110 degrees or wondering if we’ll have enough funding to make it through a pandemic such as the one in which we now find ourselves. But this dream team makes me proud to do the work I do and they keep me coming back each day regardless of how many arrows we were forced to dodge the day before. They are my “Farm”ily and I am so, so grateful to each of them for the commitment, passion, humor, expertise, vision, integrity, and positivity that they have brought to my life and to TVF.
Facebook: Tucson Village Farm
Brian Powell David Gilmore