By Joseph M. de Leon
Yolanda Baz-Dresch grows decorative plants in her heavily shaded North Austin yard, but starting a veggie garden seems overwhelming to her. When her husband, David, recently retired, she signed up on VolunteerMatch to find him something to do. Instead, she found her place on a farm.
“I’m a city girl, I mean a 100% city girl, so it’s been a real experience to learn about goats, roosters, and pigs,” she said. “I’m happy to do my piddly little landscaping at home, but now I can go to the farm and get my fix there.”
From New York City to Los Angeles, volunteering at urban farms is on the rise. Entire organizations dedicated to connecting volunteers with farms have sprung up, including World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a network that matches volunteers with educational experiences on sustainable farms across the globe.
Originally from El Paso, Baz-Dresch has been preparing to be a Spanish interpreter. She’s worked in communications for Texas WIC for 25 years and is ready for a change of pace when she retires. Many farm stands and farmers markets offer WIC (Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant, and Children) and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants double value on their food vouchers. Baz-Dresch thought volunteering at such a farm stand would be a great way to practice her interpreting skills.
She began volunteering at Green Gate Farms in 2016, an urban farm just 15 miles from home. The surrounding working class neighborhoods include many Spanish-speaking residents. It seemed like the perfect interpreting match.
Skip Connett and Erin Flynn established Green Gate Farms in 2006 in far East Austin. They restored a historic farm site and turned it into a certified organic farm. The space serves as a community resource that offers camps and classes, field trips and tours, and several Community Supported Agriculture programs, including one for vegetables, flowers, meat, eggs, and for food voucher recipients.
A nonprofit branch of the farm is called the New Farm Institute, an organization dedicated to teaching, helping, and inspiring a new generation of sustainable organic farmers, with an emphasis on food justice.
Baz-Dresch has been impressed with the effort.
“I’ve been aware of the lack of access to healthy food in this part of town,” she said. “Finding that side of the farm was great, that there’s somebody actually doing that from a farm standpoint, literally from the ground up.”
Flynn also owns land adjacent to the farm that includes two mostly Latino neighborhoods of manufactured homes. They want the farm to be a place where residents can do business, learn, and send their children to enjoy farm activities, but there is a language barrier — she doesn’t speak Spanish.
Baz-Dresch attended neighborhood association meetings to promote the farm’s double dollars program for food voucher recipients and to talk to residents about eating more fruits and vegetables. The area is in a food desert, an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.
She also approached neighborhood leaders about applying for a grant to start their own community garden, with support from Green Gate. They declined because the young organization is not yet ready to take on that responsibility. For now, organizers plan to use the grant money to send some of the neighborhood children to farm camp at Green Gate Farms. When more residents participate in the neighborhood association, they may reconsider starting a garden.
So far, few Spanish speakers have visited the farm stand.
“I’m not disappointed because I think what I’ve found at the farm outweighs what I thought I was looking for,” Baz-Dresch said about her plans to interpret. “I think I found a new side of myself in volunteering. It motivates me to keep busy, not for the sake of being busy, but I’m actually helping people. Keeping busy and doing something good.”
Featured Photo: Green Gate Farms grows many vegetables, including a variety of greens and squash. Photo Credit: Joseph M. de Leon.
Originally from San Antonio, Joseph has managed a community garden, led a food rescue nonprofit, and was recognized as a City of Austin Net-Zero Hero for his community composting work. He and wife Denise sold everything to buy an RV and travel full time.