UCSD nurse and former hip-hop ambassador launch farm for the needy in Baja
Mud and Lotus Farms will provide produce to an orphanage and a home for senior citizens.
When the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March, UC San Diego nurse Brenda Henry wanted to find a way to help people struggling to pay bills and feed their families, possibly with excess produce from her backyard garden.
From that seed of an idea, a small farm has grown on a tiny plot in the small beachside community of Primo Tapia in Baja California. Henry, who works at UCSD Health’s Moores Cancer Center in La Jolla, is the underwriter of the newly planted Mud and Lotus Farms, located about 27 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. All of the farm’s harvest of corn, pinto beans and squash will be donated in October to a children’s orphanage and a home for senior citizens in Baja.
The farm is managed by one of Henry’s longtime friends, Anas Canon, an Oakland-raised sound engineer, ex-Apple creative talent and former hip-hop ambassador for the U.S. State Department. Canon, 46, semi-retired in 2016 and left his longtime home in Los Angeles in search of a quieter, simpler and less-expensive life in Mexico.
Until mid-March, he was recording music with L.A. artists and running a wellness retreat at his 5-acre ranch in Primo Tapia. For safety reasons, he closed the music studio and retreat and was looking for a way to keep himself busy and help his Baja neighbors, who have been devastated by the pandemic. Tourism, which supports much of the coastal economy in the spring and summer, had collapsed. And the closure of the border to nonessential workers who commuted daily to jobs in San Diego wiped out the incomes of thousands of Mexican families.
“All of a sudden, with a snap of the fingers, they can’t cross the border anymore to do that work cleaning people’s houses and taking care of people’s kids. All that money is not here now. It’s a whole other level of poverty down here,” Canon said.
While shopping at a large supermarket in Baja a few weeks into the pandemic, Canon said he noticed that it wasn’t toilet paper missing from stores shelves but corn, a staple of the Mexican diet. Baja parents worried whether they’d have enough food to feed their children, Canon said.
Canon asked his landlord for permission to plant on the rented ranch land, and he and Henry enlisted local permaculture expert Lety Nuno to consult on growing techniques. They bought a dozen egg-laying hens, bought seeds and water tanks to irrigate the soil and started planting. Within a month, Mud and Lotus Farms was a reality.
“It seemed like at one point in June we looked at the calendar and realized that within four weeks we’d gone from bare ground to water tanks and chickens and plants growing and everyone doing their role. It really just sprang up from nothing,” said Henry, who lives in Paradise Hills.
Henry, 36, grew up on a farm in Iowa, where her grandparents on both sides were farmers. Since her early 20s she has planted her own backyard gardens and said she is teaching her children — an 8-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter — the importance of food self-sufficiency through gardening.
For the past 10 years, she has been an infusion nurse at Moores Cancer Center, where she said nurses frequently band together to help patients going through hard times. When the pandemic arrived, Henry said, she talked to her managers about several ideas to help people with food and bills, but nothing panned out. That was about the time she was planting her garden for summer, and she shared her thoughts with Canon in a phone call March 20. He suggested she provide the seed money for a charitable farm and he would provide the sweat equity. She loved the idea.
“I just feel like at this point in my life, I’m not wealthy by any means, but myself and my kids, we have plenty for ourselves,” she said. “It’s important to kind of look around and realize you’ve got more than other people and it’s time to give a little bit back.”
Starting a farm was a creative experiment for Canon that has since grown into an all-consuming passion. He said growing vegetables is similar to making music. It takes just a handful of ingredients to get started, and the secret of success is how the elements synthesize together.
Canon grew up in the Bay Area, where his father played organ for some of the top funk bands of the 1970s. Canon said his whole childhood was spent around musicians, artists and creative tech people from the Silicon Valley. By age 16, he was working as a choreographer and by the late 1990s, he was a full-time recording engineer and producer. Among his many famous clients are the Black Eyed Peas, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common and Aloe Blacc.
In 2006, Canon was recruited by Apple to work in L.A. as a creative talent, helping its software developers and trainers fine-tune the company’s video and audio recording products for artists. It was during his time with Apple that he worked on and off over a five-year period as a private contractor for the State Department, traveling the world building cultural good will through American hip-hop music. The job, which included meetings with ambassadors, media interviews and concerts, took him on tours to dozens of countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa and Southeast Asia.
By the time he left Apple in April 2016, 10 years to the date of his hiring, he had already planned to move abroad. Originally his destination was Indonesia, but he didn’t want to live that far from his teenage daughter or his friends and clients in L.A. Fortunately, he had discovered Primo Tapia four months earlier during a New Year’s Day trip with friends. It seemed like the perfect location to live abroad and be within a four-hour drive of L.A.
Mud and Lotus Farms, which is named after Canon’s wellness retreat, was initially created to help the hungry through the initial months of the pandemic. But Canon is so excited about the tactile rewards of farming that he hopes to expand and extend the project. On July 30, he and friends launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $41,000, which would be enough to fund farm operations through October 2021. After that, the farm should be able to support itself, he said.
Because she’s a single mom who works full time, Henry said she doesn’t get down to visit Mud and Lotus Farms as much as she did in its early planting stage. But when she does, she likes to take her children so they can better understand and appreciate the local culture and its needs.
“There was and is a lot of need here in San Diego, but, yes, there’s even more of a struggle in Mexico, as far as getting assistance when it’s needed,” she said. “If people can source food easily, they can focus on their biggest wants and needs. Food is so very basic.”
For details, visit mudandlotusbaja.com/mlb-farms. ◆
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