Juan Rojas was just three when his parents quit their jobs at a Levi’s factory in Aguascalientes, Mexico and moved to Arvada in pursuit of the American Dream. But by the time Juan was twelve, the American dream seemed as faded and threadbare as an old pair of blue jeans, and everything in his middle-school life was going wrong. His father had been deported for a decades-old DUI, his mother was working three jobs, his teenage sister was pregnant, his grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer, and Juan began seeking refuge in the wrong places and with the wrong people. “I had a friend who bought a gun on the streets, and I took it to school. I got in big trouble for that,” remembers Juan. “I thought to myself, my God, Juan, what are you doing?”
It was then that his teacher offered a science credit in exchange for real-life experience at The Urban Farm. “We would clean stalls, take care of chickens, that kind of thing, and for a reward we got to ride the horses. I loved it. The year was over, but I wanted to stay on, so I asked what I could do to ride, and I learned about T.U.F. (The Urban Farm) Program, but it was expensive, and I was an inner-city kid. I couldn’t afford that kind of thing, but the executive director said if I worked Sundays, she’d give me lessons. I knew it was an opportunity I had to take, so after school I’d take an hour and forty-five minute bus ride to the farm, take my lesson, stay until 8 or 9 at night, and then get back on the bus and be home by 10:30, too tired to think about anything bad that was happening. I’d work all day Sunday mucking stalls, building pens, training horses, anything they asked me to do.”
It’s been 9 years since Juan first set foot on the farm and to say his hard work paid off would be an understatement. He became an advanced rider, graduated high school early, and attended horseshoeing school at just 17—his tuition partly paid through connections he made at the farm. He’s 21 now and a farrier with an impressive clientele including the horses at the farm. “I’m my own boss. It’s just amazing. If it wasn’t for the farm, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Juan’s not the only one to forge an unlikely path to the farm. Michelle Graham—a transplant from New York—recently became the executive director, and like Juan, her challenges are many. The farm, which is in a ten-year lease from the City, may face a challenge when the National Western Center is completed in 2024 and possibly offers some competing programming. “I have to wonder,” says Michelle. “What is our identity? Will kids keep coming here because they’re loyal to T.U.F., will the next generation come here?”
She has a plan to make sure they do. One of her goals is to increase marketing, so people can understand the farm’s history and the new idea of urban revitalization. Much like the American Dream, it seems people romanticize farm life. “I call it farm chic,” says Michelle. “There’s the farm-to-table dinner, the trendy farm aesthetic, but when it gets down to it, it’s not that pretty. Our staff works incredibly hard. We have board members who commit to breaking ice at 5 am and 11 pm. Our days are filled with mucking stalls, tossing hay, and weeding gardens, often in the freezing cold or blazing sun.”
Despite the hardships, Michelle is anything but defeated. She’s energetic and optimistic with a seemingly endless list of goals including beefing up their summer camp and farming classes, and gardening with aquaponics and hydroponics. In fact, it seems there’s nothing Michelle thinks is beyond the farm’s capability. “I have a volunteer who wants trees out here,” she says. “They’re incredibly hard to grow because there’s a lack of water and the soil’s tough, but he’s like, ‘My plan is to have trees,’ so I’m like, ‘Alright, let’s do it! Let’s have trees!’” Who knows, maybe with a little TLC and some grit, they’ll take root and thrive. After all, it’s happened before.
For more information visit theurbanfarm.org.