MORONGO VALLEY Healing Harvest in Morongo By Ray Rodriguez

The roots and fruit of the young family who recently reopened the Morongo Valley Fruit Market are as interesting as the delicious, nutritious, often organic, bounty on hand.

Almost immediately upon ascending into the Hi-Desert on Hwy 62, housed in one of the first buildings to your right (on the south side), sits the Morongo Valley Fruit Market. It will surprise you. Initially, simply by being open. Eric and Garden Wilson (yes Garden, both a lovely and appropriate name for her) own a farm 10 minutes from the market and after months of seeing no activity, wondered why the market sat stagnant for so long. Certainly, markets had been deemed essential through Covid-19 health mandates, so that seemed an unlikely explanation. In April of this year, they took it upon themselves to research the ownership, and 48-hours after establishing contact were the proud new owners. Like many overnight successes, there is a back story.

The Wilsons are lifelong desert residents. Having attended school together in Cathedral City, they knew one another, but didn’t begin dating until after graduation when Eric returned to the mainland while on leave from the Army. At 20 years old in 2008, Eric was a trained EMT, but making a good living on a large construction project. He recalls how the bottom falling out of the U.S. economy dramatically altered his life path. Eric and his father had been working together on the $80 million Jefferson Exchange Project bordering Indio and La Quinta, when the funding halted and both father and son were instantly out of work. One day later, Eric enlisted in the US Army.

With his medical training, Eric was assigned to a combat medic unit. After boot camp at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and 4 months in Hawaii, life again turned as he was deployed to the battle ground of Afghanistan. Combat medics administer emergency medical care in the field in both combat and humanitarian situations. They serve as first responders and triage illnesses and injuries to save lives. They train other soldiers in lifesaving. Administering emergency care to the wounded for a year on the battle lines of Afghanistan, at “more posts than I can recall, well over a dozen, maybe over 20” makes a lifelong impression and exacts a human toll on a young man. “I am grateful at having seen a third-world country up close, everyone should have that experience. They are beautiful and amazing people.”

Eric recalls early in his tour of duty watching a young boy appear each morning at the base gate to collect empty plastic bottles discarded by the base, and mused to a seasoned colleague, “I wonder how much he makes on the bottles?” The more experienced soldier “gave me a strange look and motioned the young man to join us.” When asked the question, the young boy replied, “no money, we burn these to cook and stay warm.” Eric didn’t speak in detail about what happened in the field, other than, “the shifts are 12-hours shifts, and sometimes you pull a back-to-back shift, they would never make you go more than that. After I got back, I struggled, a lot, you second guess yourself over life and death decisions made in the field.” Upon completion of his service “I just partied way too much trying to escape the emotion”, so with the help of the GI Bill, he enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute to study photography and be closer to Garden.

Following high school, Garden had first studied at Cal State Fullerton, then transferred a school in San Francisco. She watched as Eric struggled, first with the slow pace of the classroom and later with “a VA that was not prepared to offer the types of services sufficient to help young men returning from battlefields deal with the trauma and reestablish themselves at home.”

Out of the blue, Eric decided to buy a couple plants and discovered he found comfort in gardening. A little research led to discovering the Farmer Veteran Coalition, whose mission is “Mobilizing veterans to feed America.” Next came an internship at Jacobs Farms specializing in organic herbs, followed by a job offer upon completing a successful internship. Newly enthused with a better understanding of both life and death and the cycle of life, Eric began recruiting other veterans to the program who were facing similar emotional challenges. “We formed our own support group as we also learned farming. Farming feels like you’re giving back.”

Walk into The Morongo Valley Fruit Market today, and you will find an affable couple running a sparkling clean market, well-stocked with both organic and traditionally-farmed fruits and vegetables, fresh-baked breads, and tortillas. Area dates, citrus, and squash are prominently displayed. Local sourcing, as well as select items from throughout California, provide for a wide variety of farm fresh produce and specialty items. An outstanding feature for those who can’t make it to the Market on a regular basis, is a regular Produce Box program, with 2 drop off spots in the Coachella Valley, and Eric himself personally delivering each Produce Box throughout the Morongo Basin.

When asked of their toughest challenges, both immediately respond as many small business owners do, “the regulations and requirements are never ending and difficult to administer.” As new owners of a bustling business, a farm, and parents of 4-year-old Koda, the Wilson’s understand the commitments they have made. Garden casually defines her role, “(I do everything”) and speaks enthusiastically about their occasional pop-up pizza days in the parking lot and of future plans. “We’d like to expand the market as well as add a cafe. We have room to grow into behind the store.”

Eric has attended multiple National Veteran Farmer events, drawing as many as 3,000 to a single room. Here, attendees expand their knowledge through USDA, growers, suppliers, and scientific presentations. He speaks enthusiastically about future participation in these events as the Wilson family, their farm and the Morongo Valley Fruit Market grows.

Morongo Valley Fruit Market can be found on Instagram, Facebook and especially at: 49-643 29 Palms Hwy, Morongo Valley, CA Email: Eric@somewhereinthedesert.com

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