Eugene Weekly : Gardening : 10.09.08

Latino Veggies
Huerto de la Familia is a growing concern
By Rachel Foster

I could hardly have chosen a lovelier season to visit the Churchill Community Garden. Sunflowers, tomatoes and towering corn were everywhere. So were tomatillo vines. I have never seen this Latin American staple on the plant before, and I was fascinated with the light green, busy vines sporting bright yellow flowers and the green fruits concealed by their papery coverings.

I went to the garden to meet Sarah Cantril, executive director of Huerto de la Familia (The Family Garden), an organization that offers low-income Latino families an opportunity to grow their own vegetables and receive some garden-related education. Each family pays half the rental fee for a 600 sq. ft. garden plot and receives donated plants, seeds, and gardening materials. The group rents plots at Churchill Community Garden, Skinner City Farm and the Youth Farm, the majority of them at Churchill. Huerto shares the Churchill site with FOOD for Lane County, neighborhood gardeners and the school.

Inez with her children at Skinner City Farm

Huerto meets twice a month to talk with the families about organic growing and collaborates with other community-based organizations and individuals to offer one-time classes on health related topics such as nutrition, seed saving and canning. There is also a children’s program that includes educational activities and a children’s garden. Huerto accept volunteers, including Master Gardeners. (Huerto gardens are official sites for Master Gardener candidates to put in the qualifying hours that go towards the certificate).

Daniel Romero serves as site manager and garden program assistant. Now in his first year with Huerto, he helps families develop their plots and obviously loves his work. He’s a part time employee, but he lives near the Churchill garden and says “I’m always here!” Romero, who is from Puerto Rico, worked with Seeds of Change in New Mexico. He has grown and eaten a great variety of vegetables and tries to interest the families in trying new things. Most families like to grow corn, peppers, tomatillos and — especially — tomatoes. He told me he would like to provide heirloom varieties next year, so the families can learn about saving seed, but they seem to prefer the familiar red tomatoes. Families may hold their plots from year to year, so he also encourages them to grow more food for year-round consumption.

So far Romero hasn’t found a lot of takers for cold-weather vegetables or winter squash. All the same, a close look at their gardens suggests that many of the families are open to a wide variety of crops. Green beans, onions and melons are popular. They grow epazote, an annual herb that is cooked with beans or eaten raw in tacos (Romero says it “takes away the gas”) and a variety of salad greens. At Skinner City Farm I met Inez, who is from Oaxaca, Mexico. She pointed out tepiche, an unfamiliar and tasty narrow leafed salad herb. The families also eat some familiar weeds: lambs-quarters, purslane and red root pigweed. Inez said that some families have seed sent from their families back home, for instance chilis, jicama and special varieties of corn.

Cantril introduced me to Lorenza, who has been with Huerto for five years and always has the most productive garden. She is a master seeder, greatly respected by the other families for her skill. Her distinctive plot was divided neatly into small blocks of produce that included strawberries, onions, cucumbers, corn, beans and melons. Lorenza told me she had already put up 120 jars of tomatoes, enough to last most of the year. She reckons she puts in three or four hours a week, coming at 7 pm after she finishes work.

Lorenza is one of 10 Huerto families who, with other members of the Latino community, are participating in The Small Farmers Project of Lane County, a program of Huerto de la Familia which is partly funded by Heifer International. The families (who come from Mexico, Central America and Peru) are renting 14 acres on two properties off River Road which they will farm organically, raising turkeys for their own use and vegetables, strawberries and black cap raspberries for sale in the community. Carl Berg (of Berg’s Berries) serves as consultant and trainer. Cantril is excited about this enterprise, only the third Heifer Project in Oregon and the first outside Portland.

Huerto de la Familia has been in operation since 1999 and received non-profit status in 2004. Huerto accepts donations of money and in-kind. Volunteers are welcome and can help in a number of ways. For information about ways to donate or volunteer, visit or contact Huerto at: 3575 Donald St., Suite 145D, Eugene 97405. Phone 255-6120 or 687-0819 or email

Rachel Foster of Eugene is a garden consultant and author of All About Gardens, a selection of past Eugene Weekly columns. She can be reached at