Installing irrigation zones wasn’t something Alberto Alaniz thought he’d ever be doing as a math teacher, but when Sacaton Elementary School District (SESD) planted an orchard earlier this year he found himself outside digging trenches.
Mr. Alaniz helped establish what the schools calls its Legacy Orchard Project—made possible through a grant from the Gila River Indian Community.
Less than a year ago, the sandy desert lot behind the school yard was completely barren.
“It really is something to experience and see it from raw nothing to this,” Alaniz said.
Students, faculty and volunteers planted 144 young fruit trees last spring, including various types of lemon, grapefruit, orange, tangelos, pomegranate, fig, peach and plum trees.
It’s not the first time the school has had an orchard. An older orchard was removed around 2002 to make way for plans that never materialized. Now, with a new community orchard taking root, SESD hopes to provide current and future students with a more “fruitful” education.
New tools for an ancient tradition
The new orchard ties back to a farming culture of the Hohokam people who constructed hundreds of miles of canals from the Salt and Gila Rivers to grow cotton, corn, squash, beans and other crops beginning around 600 AD. It became largest prehistoric irrigation system in North America.
When it was time to design the irrigation system for Sacaton’s new orchard, Mr. Alaniz turned to his local Ewing store in nearby Chandler, Arizona for help figuring out what they would need.
Hunter Williams, Ewing’s Chandler store manager, suggested drip irrigation to help them water the orchard efficiently. A ring of drip tubing surrounds each tree, closely applying water near tree roots, providing deep watering with less overwatering and evaporation.
Williams also helped the school find a way to run the irrigation system without nearby access to electricity: a solar-powered Hunter Node irrigation controller automatically waters the trees about twice per week.
Despite challenges posed by the deserts’ extreme heat and powerful winds that come through the area, the trees are healthy, growing and attracting pollinators like bees and lady bugs.
“We built an ecosystem. It’s really something,” Alaniz said.
Learning by growing
The orchard has already become a useful teaching tool for Alaniz’ classes, giving students a way to learn through real-world problem solving. The Integrated Science and Mathematics class has been well received by both parents and students.
“I call it applied mathematics. We take the math we learn in a book and put to use in the field,” said Alaniz.
He first put his math classes to the challenge of planning out where each tree would be planted based on the coordinate plane.
“Each team had three trees. Team A had to talk to team B, class one had to talk to class two, and really interact to get the gridding together.”
The orchard hasn’t only been useful for teaching math. Students also designed logos for the orchard and wrote about it in a journal project as extended learning for Language Arts class.
“Our Social Studies teacher also taught about how the agrarian culture here evolved, from hunter gathers to the aqueduct irrigation system,” Alaniz said.
These lessons seem to have already had an impact academically, from more engaged students to improved test scores at the end of last school year, he added.
Creating community connections
Mr. Alaniz takes his classes out to the orchard about once a week to see what’s happening and how the fruit is growing.
SESD Superintendent Mrs. Cherryl Paul hopes these experiences will give students something in common with their grandparents and community elders, as well as a way to connect with them with their agricultural roots.
Farming was a historically important part of Gila River communities but disappeared as the Gila River went dry with creation of the Roosevelt Dam and other changes over time. In more recent years, as greater water rights have been restored to the Gila River Indian Community, farming is becoming a bigger part of their economy and way of life again.
The school’s Legacy Community Orchard is part of that effort and they plan to share what they grow with the community. It could be a lot, as Alaniz estimates their first harvest could be as much as 1,500 pieces of fruit.
Growing a legacy
“Where do we go from here?”
That’s the question Mr. Alaniz has been asking now that the orchard is getting established.
They plan to build a greenhouse and vegetable garden nearby and eventually some more shade structures for an outdoor classroom.
He’s confident they’ll continue to be successful with the help of vendors like Ewing. When leaks were occurring on a frequent basis, Williams came to the rescue with a solution that was effective and affordable, Alaniz said.
And Williams is happy to continue share any knowledge he can with the school, from what to do in a freeze to how to adjust their irrigation schedules.
“I can’t wait to see what it looks like in ten years,” said Williams.
By then, the trees will be about eight feet high with branches almost touching, Alaniz said.
Although he plans to retire in a few years, he wants to continue to help the school maintain the orchard.
“It’s very exciting to know this Legacy Community Orchard project will be here for an extremely long time.”