Penny Davis is by no means a farmer by trade. Before she and her husband Sandy Davis started the agricultural nonprofit Seed2Need, she was an accountant at PNM. Though her father was a sort of gentleman farmer and kept a garden when she was little, she had no experience with agriculture on a scale larger than a half acre. Perhaps it was living in the farming community of Corrales that prompted her to start the organization after she retired. If you ask her, though, she gives a deeper, more personal reason for starting this work: “The truth? When the recession hit, there were so many people who were out of work or losing their jobs, and I just got this nagging feeling in my gut that I couldn’t get away from that I needed to do something. I believe that I was meant to do this project.”
Seed2Need is a group of volunteers who grow fruits and veggies on private land to donate to New Mexico food banks. The land, which several Corrales residents generously allow the volunteers to grow on, is scattered between several different plots within about a square mile of each other. Davis says that she didn’t have to ask any of the landowners to grow on their land—when the Corrales community learned about what she was doing, people came out of the woodwork to offer up their acres.
Davis and her husband have lived in Corrales for 25 years, and their good standing in the community was a crucial element in building the organization up from the ground. When Seed2Need first looked to expand beyond the Davis’ half acre of land in 2009, she approached Nora Scherzinger, the Corrales Village Administrator at the time, to see if she knew anyone in the area who would be willing to let them grow vegetables on their land. “She said ‘of course I do, I’ve lived here my whole life. You can use my land.’ ” Davis says. Shortly after that, the Scherzingers’ neighbors, Bob and Janet Lynn, offered their land, too. In 2015, the folks at the end of that street offered theirs. They also have an orchard and a greenhouse on Stella Lane, not far away. Davis says she still gets three or four offers a year from people who want Seed2Need to use their land, but she simply doesn’t have the workforce to plant and harvest any more land at this point.
Which is not to say that her workforce is small. About a quarter of all the volunteers at Seed2Need are from the Sandoval County Master Gardeners, an organization of local gardeners dedicated to educating about and preserving high desert farming practices. Other volunteers come in groups from local churches and companies, and young people come from scout troops and schools to get community service hours. There’s experienced farmers and backyard gardeners, retirees and toddlers, longtime Corrales residents and curious first-timers who show up to help out during the harvest. They spend a few hours in the mornings harvesting and finish up before noon, when the Roadrunner Food Bank’s trucks come to pick up their donations. Last year, volunteers gave approximately 3,000 hours of time to Seed2Need.
All those hours paid off: In 2017, Seed2Need donated approximately 65,000 pounds of produce to local food banks. While most of their produce goes to Roadrunner Food Bank (they’re the only bank large enough to handle the sheer volume of raw fruits and veggies that Seed2Need donates, and they distribute all over the state), they also give to smaller local food pantries—St. Felix Pantry in Rio Rancho, Casa Rosa Food Pantry in Placitas, The Storehouse, Rio Grande Food Project, St. John Episcopal Food Pantry and Haven House, a domestic violence shelter for women and children. “They have a great program up there,” says Teresa Johansen, the COO of Roadrunner Food Bank. “It helps people learn about where their food comes from too, which is almost as important as the food itself.”
Davis was a Master Gardener long before she began Seed2Need, and the skills she learned while taking their requisite 15-week master class and planting her own small garden have been invaluable in her current work. Because she came to farming as a relative rookie, she’s constantly learning new things and finding new problems to tackle. One year, for instance, it was learning how to deal with root-knot nematodes, soil parasites that attack roots and keep nutrients from getting to the plants. One year it was dealing with a bad batch of alpaca manure that was tainted with chemical herbicides. “That year our vegetables looked like they came from outer space,” Davis says.
That learning curve, and the steady increase in acreage and volunteers, has meant a corresponding increase in the amount of produce grown and donated. Davis’ accounting skills and attention to detail help her when it comes time to make the year-end report: The two-page document is filled with graphs and hard numbers, reflections on what went well over the past year and new strategies for the next one. To address the issue of tomato plants dying in the New Mexico summer heat, for instance, Davis outlined this strategy for 2018: “We will limit our tomato varieties to the four to five heat tolerant varieties that performed the best in 2017. …We will also plant a winter cover crop of winter wheat, winter rye, Austrian peas, hairy vetch and crimson clover to improve the soil.” Her approach to farming is systematic and cumulative—the lessons she learns each year add up and help her in each following year. She hopes that this store of knowledge can be passed on to whoever takes over the project in the future.
“I’m getting old, and so is my husband,” Davis says. “He has arthritis and had to have a knee replacement last year. We’re getting too old for this, but I don’t want this project to end.” They’re currently interviewing to find a farm manager this year who can take over some of the operations of Seed2Need going into the future. The farm manager will be the one coordinating volunteers and training interns in the coming years, so Davis wants to make sure it’s somebody who not only has the know-how but is compassionate and easy to get along with to boot. Whoever ends up taking the job will inherit a whole cadre of people willing and ready to give their time, money and land to the cause. If you’re interested in being one of those people, you can visit seed2need.org to learn about how you can volunteer or donate, or email email@example.com. When I tell her that I’d like to come volunteer during the season, Davis smiles and says, “Come on out. You’ll like a lot of the folks who volunteer. They’re good people.”