Organizing A Community or Food Pantry Garden

A community or food pantry garden requires 5 things…a leader(s), an organization, land,
financial resources and volunteers

We found land and financial resources to be the least of our issues. Recruiting a reliable and adequate supply of volunteers was much more difficult.


If the garden is very large, it is preferable to recruit several people to serve as co-chairs so there is coverage when someone is absent. It also prevents burnout. If the garden is large, the leadership position can easily turn into a 20+ hour/week job.


Look for land in a sunny location with a reliable source of water. Avoid fields surrounded by
trees. Tree roots may require the field to be ripped before it is plowed (expensive) and tree roots absorb a great deal of water. Also avoid land covered with perennial weeds like Johnson grass and bindweed.

We prefer drip irrigation to flood irrigation. Why? Flood irrigation brings in weed seed such as Johnson grass and bindweed. Even when your irrigation district sets up an irrigation schedule, you never know whether there will be an adequate supply of water. In a drought year, the irrigation water may be cut off before the end of the growing season. Also, some crops such as tomatoes may not do as well with flood irrigation.

Have the soil tested so you know what type/how much fertilizer is needed to maximize yield. If possible, do the soil test in the fall when soil labs are not as busy.

Beware of land that must be farmed organically. We don’t oppose organic farming and if you are selling your produce at a farmer’s market, organic produce sells at a
premium price. However, our experience has been that organic farming requires more labor.

Start Small

Start out small and increase the garden size over time. Add annual flowers and herbs to attract beneficial insects and to make the garden look nice. Nothing sells a gardening project as well as a beautiful, well-tended garden.

If you are using someone else’s land, make sure that the property owner is covered by a liability policy. It is also be a good idea for this policy to cover personal injury or to ask your volunteers to sign a personal injury waiver.

Why would a property owner offer the use of their land?

Benefits to the property owner include having a “farmers market” in their own back yard, the aesthetic value of a lush, well-tended garden and the personal satisfaction of helping a
worthwhile cause. Property owners may also qualify for a charitable contribution for out of
pocket expenses and for a reduction in property tax as the result of converting vacant land to agricultural use. A tax professional should be consulted to determine the appropriate tax
treatment based on your locality and situation.

Food Pantry Garden Organization

For a small, self-funded gardening project, you can probably get by without setting up a formal organization. If this is a community garden and you have members who sell their produce at a farmer’s market, make sure that they understand that they are responsible for handling gross receipts tax and federal/state tax reporting.

If you are going to apply for grants, we suggest organizing your project as a 501c3. This process may take 4 months or more and it will require recruiting a board of directors and drafting articles of incorporation and bylaws. Sample articles of incorporation and bylaws can be found on the internet.

Another alternative is to find an existing 501c3 who would be willing to serve as your fiscal
sponsor. Fiscal sponsors generally charge a fee to handle bookkeeping and reporting. We
avoided this fee by organizing Seed2Need as a project under the fiscal sponsorship of one of the food pantries we served. The food pantry took care of the bookkeeping and reporting. In return, we supplied them with fresh produce. Sample fiscal sponsorship agreements can be found on the internet.

If you are a 501c3, it is much easier to solicit funding from businesses and private individuals because their donations are tax deductible. There are also a larger number of gardening grants available to non-profits.

Resources – Financial, Services and Equipment

The financial resources for the Seed2Need project came from local business, grants and from private individuals in our community. 

If you are growing a garden within a city, water can be one of your highest costs. Check with your local water department.  Some cities provide water to community gardens at reduced cost.

Check with local greenhouses, farmers and schools for greenhouse space to grow your seedlings. Many seed companies donate seed. Sources include seed libraries, your county extension office and “big box” hardware stores like Lowes and Home Depot, Walmart, etc.   Restore (Habitats for Humanity Resale Center), Craigslist, estate sales, garage sales and auctions are a good sources for other low cost materials.

Gardening on a Budget

Our “cold frame” is a square of straw bales covered with row cover and shade cloth and we use a t-tape irrigation system to minimize water usage.   In 2010, we mulched all of our tomato plants with newspaper but because it deteriorated quickly we switched to plastic mulch in 2011. Plastic mulch was faster to put down, it suppressed weeds and helped reduce water evaporation. The downside was that it was time-consuming to remove at the end of season.  In the future we may try biodegradable mulch.
We designed and built our own tomato cages because we needed something suitable for planting 1200-1500 tomato plants each year.  You can see our tomato cage design in many of the photos on this website. 
Tractors/tillers were loaned by individuals in our community. Shallow, stackable produce boxes are needed for harvesting and distributing the produce. A good source of free boxes is Sam’s Club and Costco. However, also check with your local food bank. Occasionally, they receive produce in plastic shipping boxes and they may be willing to donate them or sell them to you for a nominal fee. If the garden is large and you are not near a public restroom, you will also need at least one portable toilet.


It takes many more volunteers than you would expect. Sandoval county Master Gardeners make up our core group of volunteers. However, we also receive help from Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Eagle Scout candidates, 4-H groups, church groups, businesses, other community service organizations and private individuals. Other potential sources of volunteers include high schools that require their students to complete community service hours and municipal court systems that allow offenders to work off traffic tickets and minor violations through community service. This fall, we also received help from the volunteers and board of directors of several of the food pantries we serve.


If you are doing a community garden, you will probably want to put some membership rules in place that deal with garden maintenance, irrigation, code of conduct, use of herbicides and insecticides, etc.

The impact of advertising and public relations should not be underestimated. It is important for the public to become aware of your project. It is equally important to recognize and thank sponsors. Put up signs. Take photographs – they are needed for presentations, the website, grants and other publicity.

2010 Expenditures – two gardens totaling 8/10 acre

Description  Cost
Seed and seed starting supplies  $         518.92
Fertilizer  $         378.50
Irrigation System  $      1,812.09
Cold frame materials  $           62.00
Signs for three gardens  $         108.62
Row cover to cover tomatoes  $         458.60
Scale for weighing produce  $           69.30
Concrete wire to build 190 tomato cages  $      1,671.72
Total  $ 5,079.70

Several of these items such as the cold frame, scale, tomato cages and irrigation system will be used for several years.
In 2010, our total harvest was 30,700 pounds, valued at approximately $48,463.00. Crops
included green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, eggplant, green chile and summer squash. In 2011, we grew 45,300 pounds of produce on 1.5 acres.  Harvest varies from year to year, primarily due to weather.  Since 2010, Seed2Need has donated over 700,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to the food pantries in our community.

Suggested Reference Materials

  • NMSU Circular 572: Vegetable Variety Recommendations for New Mexico Backyard and
    Market Gardens
  • NMSU Circular 457-B: Growing Zones, Recommended Crop Varieties, and Planting and
    Harvesting Information for Home Vegetable Gardens in New Mexico
  • See Facebook group page Seed2Need for more information. A video is available in the picture folder.

Note: Opinions expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily
represent the research, recommendations and opinions of New Mexico State University, the
Sandoval County Cooperative Extension Office or the Sandoval County Master Gardeners


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