By Rick VanderKnyff
Out near , along a dirt road that runs out from on Woodinville-Redmond Road, Joel Cuellar and Cynthia Swenson are trying out a one-acre experiment, one that combines dirt, seed, sun, water and a bit of hard work.
What they’re hoping to grow is not only fresh food, but a bit of what they call community resilience. Their plot of land is called the Sharecroppers Garden, and the idea is that anyone can come and pitch in – and bring a little food home with them.
Cuellar, who worked until recently as an artist at a game studio in Kirkland, grew up in a small border town in Texas. Swenson, a lifelong educator, was raised in rural Louisiana. They don’t have a background in farming, but they aim to recreate the community feeling they found in their respective small towns, “where people come out and support each other through hard times,” Swenson said during a recent Sunday work party. “We are dedicated to recreating that wherever we find ourselves.”
They see the Sharecroppers Garden as a natural classroom, and they’re learning right along with the community members who have joined them so far.
“People just come and lend their knowledge and expertise, and we just figure it out,” Swenson said while giving a tour of the garden. This is their first growing season on the land, and a few things were ready to eat – sugar snap peas, right off the vine – while other crops were just taking off.
Swenson and Cuellar have been resourceful in getting the project started this year. They have scoured Craigslist for free plants, and have been learning technique from . They hold regular Sunday work parties on the land, and have also had a few community feasts to raise awareness. The land, provided by , was fallow until this spring.
“The canary grass was 9 feet tall. … It was daunting,” Swenson said. “Really, it was just an untended field,” agreed Paul Stanford, one of the volunteers on hand for the work party. Now, the garden includes cucumbers, radishes, sugar snap peas, pumpkins, tomatoes. And Cuellar said later by phone that they are getting ready to clear more land, in preparation for next spring.
Cuellar and Swenson, both Woodinville residents who started their project through Transition Woodinville, have ambitions that go beyond this one-acre plot. They have started a nonprofit organization called Abundancia, with the goal of “creating community, one garden at a time.”
They want to see more shared community gardens where low-income families without access to land can grow their own fresh, organic food. For now, Woodinville is where they are trying out their vision.
The next planned work party is Sunday, July 22, from 1 to 4 p.m. Cuellar said that a public screening of the documentary “Dirt” is planned on July 29 – more details coming soon. You can find more about Abundancia on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/abundanciagardens.
--Rick VanderKnyff is a former Los Angeles Times writer and a board member of the PCC Farmland Trust