Permaculture course provides hands-on training

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SACETON, Ariz. ? "Native communities have got to create more farmers," says Edward Mendoza, the farm manager of the Gila River Juvenile Detention and Rehabilitation Center O'odham Oidak Farm, here. "It's a question of food sovereignty."

With that in mind, he'll soon be heading for Santa Fe, where he's one of the teachers of the Traditional Native American Farmers Association's permaculture course. From July 15 to 26, students from around the hemisphere will learn ways of creating sustainable relationships among humans, plants, animals and the earth.

Mendoza, Azteka-Mayan-Xikano, looks forward to the experience, which he calls "inspiring."

"And we farmers have to be inspired to go out there every day and hoe weeds in 105-degree heat," he adds, offering a glimpse of his wry sense of humor.

Each year, about 25 students complete classes in gardening, nutrition, habitat restoration, solar design and other topics. After creating a final project, they receive a certificate in permaculture. Dozens more audit part of the course, which costs $500. Scholarships are available for Native people who are unable to pay and willing to do volunteer work. Past graduates have used the skills they developed to help them put in home gardens, start businesses, and obtain college degrees.

The broad-ranging subject matter of the permaculture course, in which Mendoza has participated for several years, invariably gives him new ideas for his innovative work at O'odham Oidak Farm. He combines experiential and academic approaches. "Hands-on learning in the fields supports classroom training in science, math, culture and other areas," he said.

He strives for a union of contemporary and traditional concepts. "The kids learn the oral histories of farming in their community. They work with elders to preserve, revive and perhaps most interesting continue to develop the agriculture that has sustained their people for centuries."

At the detention center, a fish farm provides the children with a healthful component for their diets, as well as the opportunity to learn another set of skills. The fish waste is used to irrigate the fields' down slope. "That's free fertilizer for our crops," Mendoza points out. The aquaculture facility may be modern, but pairing it with the agricultural activities arises from an ancient local practice of consuming fish captured in irrigation ditches, he says.

Each May, the Peach Festival finds residents preparing food they produce, as well as that which they collect from the desert, including cholla buds and wolfberries. In a convivial setting that includes traditional dances and music of various kinds, as many as 500 meals are served to families and other community members. "Because the kids participate in all aspects of the event, it's an educational experience as well as a chance to share," says Mendoza.

Mendoza, who did an undergraduate agriculture degree at Cal Poly State University and graduate work in education at Arizona State University, is also taking part in the development of an agriculture-related high-school curriculum. "It will reinforce farming as a part of the students' heritage while they're studying other subjects," he said. The material will become a part of regular courses at Desert Eagle Secondary School on the Salt River Indian Reservation, where some of his own children go to school.

In April, TNAFA helped send Mendoza to Guatemala for the International Indian Treaty Council's UN-sponsored conference on the hardships indigenous people face in obtaining safe and culturally appropriate food. He also worked on this issue when he was a board member of Native Seeds/SEARCH, the award-winning Tucson seedbank for heirloom native crops. In addition to speaking at the conference, he toured local farms. He notes, "Everywhere you go, farmers are the older generation. We need to train young ones, so we can feed ourselves and maintain our traditions."

Mendoza is in the process of obtaining a piece of land, where he will devise a model for sustainable, environmentally sound living. Nothing will be wasted, particularly water an increasingly threatened resource worldwide. "You can use gray water for a garden and obtain fertilizer from a composting toilet," he says. "Then you don't flush nutrients down the drain or toilet and use contaminants to clean up. We have to empower people to get back to the basics. It's the only solution to the direction things are going in right now."

He is anticipating changes at his job as well. "I work in a little office, where I keep books, seeds, tools, and garlic, which is saved to plant next year's crop. And it smells like it," he jokes. "I'm supposed to get another office, so we can use the old one for storage. The new office will have my agriculture books, and at home will be the books that relate to my creative life my music and my writing. My life is going to get organized pretty soon."

He's pleased to be working with young people. "I was talking with Clayton," he mused about a recent conversation with TNAFA Director Clayton Brascoup?, "and we agreed that it's the work that's needed most. There's a reward in feeling that we're helping these youth become aware citizens who will make changes in the future."

For details, contact TNAFA Director Clayton Brascoup? at 505-983-2172 or Mendoza at 520-562-3373, ext. 3331.