Helping Life Saving Garden Grow

By Tom Carlson, Naco Wellness Initiative Executive Director

First plowing of the one-acre plot

Ten miles from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bisbee, the COVID-19 epidemic triggered crippling food shortages in the border town of Naco, Mexico, population 6,000. Some families lost their breadwinners to the illness; many others lost all income. The result: no money to buy food for months. Isolated seniors were saved only when neighbors discovered their starvation. Small children pick up any odd jobs for pennies to help their families. There are no food banks.

Since 2004, when St. John’s members helped found the Naco Wellness Initiative
(NWI), the town has gained two health clinics, three school gardens and 140 family gardens as part of the nonprofit’s effort to battle widespread malnutrition, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

In 2020, NWI clinics continued to provide
limited blood pressure and blood sugar monitoring, physical therapy, medical equipment loans and medical aid. Daily exercise classes for adults have restarted. Education classes for elementary students and socialization wellness programs for the elderly will soon resume. Clinics Director Lupita Sanchez and the NWI staff are giving COVID shots as they are available.

This spring, NWI, an Episcopal Jubilee Ministry, is taking a big growth step, planting a one-acre, organic plot called San Jose Community Farm. The land gift of Naco businessman Tavo Martan will one day expand to four tilled acres. “Our school and family gardens were a main source of food for hundreds of people last fall. We shared as much as we could,” said NWI Executive Director Tom Carlson. “With this farm and lots of Naco volunteers, under the direction of Norma Bernabe, NWI Garden Programs Director, we’re expecting to help over 2,000 people this year. Working together with the community, we can collectively provide access to a reliable and sustainable source of healthy food.”

The initial acre is being tilled into 60, 50-foot beds that will sprout squashes, melons, corn, tomatoes, and 24 other rotating crops nearly year-round. Two compost pits that can produce 40 to 50 gallons of organic liquid fertilizer a month are close by. Surrounding everything, volunteers are erecting a 984-foot living, ocotillo fence.

In April, NWI’s small local staff will lead the plant-ing, using a walk-behind tractor. A new 12,000-foot drip irrigation system in-cluding a 3,000-gal-lon storage tank will feed and water the plants. Both were donated by Love of Christ Foundation.

NWI supplies all tools, seed, irrigation, natural fertilizer and gardening instruction for all gardens. Students from Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University’s Global Resolve Program created the growing plan for the soil conditions.

“We’re looking forward to getting back to normal, but we’re also going to focus on year-round gardening this year,” Carlson said. “That’s how we can produce the most nutritional benefits with our neighbors.” “Naco Wellness provides a unique opportunity to experience the sense of being one community, like there was here before the wall,” said Rev. John Caleb Collins, Vicar of St. John’s in Bisbee and St. Stephen’s in Douglas. “Its focus on supporting food se-curity and community development has brought the Diocese of Arizona to the frontlines of border ministry, cooperating with our partners on the Mexican side.”

To support NWI, visit the website: or email

First plowing of the one-acre plot