The future of the local foods movement in Tucson looks a lot like a couple of young, counter-culture farmers working their butts off on a piece of land with acreage measured in the single digits. Adam Valdivia, 27, and C.J. Marks Jr., 32, may till a tiny patch of desert on the northwest side called Sleeping Frog Farms, but they're also dipping into a deepening green movement with an increasing demand for locally grown and organic foods.
The locavore appetite is so high that last November, only a couple of months after they first turned the soil on their leased land, they were selling produce to the likes of Janos, Primo and Acacia restaurants and the Food Conspiracy Co-Op. By December, they had about 20 different farm products to sell.
The two estimate they could sell 20 percent more of everything they produce on the one acre under cultivation.
"We can't meet the demand," Valdivia said.
In addition to the restaurants and the food co-op, they're also regular vendors Sundays at the Tucson Farmers' Market at St. Philip's Plaza, at the southeast corner of East River Road and North Campbell Avenue, and Thursdays at the Santa Cruz River Farmers Market at the corner of West Speedway and Riverview (between the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind and El Rio Neighborhood Center).
Farmers' talents converge
Valdivia and Marks, despite their youth, have extensive backgrounds and training in local farming methods. They both have worked for or consulted with more than 10 farms each around the country.
Valdivia also worked on a similar operation in Costa Rica in addition to working in landscaping and retail produce management.
Sleeping Frog Farms is a convergence of their talents, background and experience mixed with an increasing public sympathy and understanding of the value of local foods.
Beyond that, they have an uncommon passion for growing foods free of herbicides and pesticides using a French intensive/biodynamic/permaculture method. And they have an ethic that demands 100-hour work weeks.
All that makes them a desirable produce team for local restaurants and the co-op.
"We were particularly excited last year when Adam and C.J. started Sleeping Frog Farms," said Torey Ligon, outreach coordinator for the food co-op. "We really don't have that many sustainable, local farms."
Marks and Valdivia are members of a smallish group in Tucson focused on local and organic foods. But they bring more than produce to buyers.
"We know we can trust them that they're not spraying pesticides on the food," Ligon said.
What's more, the two are reliable, she said. Not only do they provide high-quality produce, but with Valdivia and Marks, "We get the full package. They show up when they say they are going to show up," she said.
'It tastes great'
Philippe Waterinckx, director of Tucson Community Supported Agriculture, has seen the rise in demand for local foods first-hand. The Tucson CSA started in 2004 with 15 members.
"We have pretty much doubled the client base every year since then," he said. Today, about 500 members pay upfront for shares of a farmer's product they pick up every week.
It's not unlike the relationship Sleeping Frog Farms has with the upscale Tucson restaurants.
"We use the products because of excellence," Janos Wilder, chef of Janos and an advocate for locally grown foods, said of Sleeping Frog products. "These guys are biodynamic, organic."
Part of his reason for using local growers such as Sleeping Frog Farms, Wilder said, is that it stimulates the economy. But, "more than anything else, it tastes great."
Marks' and Valdivia's vision for their farm is focused on education, nutrition and methods that use small-scale intensive farming that leaves a small ecological footprint.
Tapping into the trend toward healthier food grown by locals is another benefit.
"We wanted to get our foot in the door," Valdivia said.
Farm is nearly self-contained
Marks said their goal is to eventually move into community supported agriculture.
They work the required long hours to make sure the farm is as close to a contained system as possible.
For example, they keep a chicken coop on the farm. The chickens are fed from vegetables they produce and the remains of crops. In turn, the chickens produce fertilizer.
"Even the straw in their pen gets mixed into the soil," Marks said.
Sleeping Frog Farms is growing slowly. Despite the demand for their products, Valdivia and Marks have deliberately kept the pace of growth in line with their financial ability (they pay themselves $100 per week) to expand.
"We're scraping by," said Valdivia.
At the moment, what they need is a little sweat equity. Marks dreams of having a couple of interns or "actual work parties" to help with the workload. But they're cautious because they don't want the help to interrupt "the flow of the farm."
Valdivia would really like assistance from the community in the form of supplies and sharing resources to get bigger composts for the farm.
In the meantime, the farm grows toward its 3 1/2-acre potential alongside the local-foods trend.
"Our vision is to have this as a model of a local, community-based fruit, vegetable and egg farm," Valdivia said.
Define your terms
Biodynamic — Organic farming method that takes into consideration both biological cycles and "dynamic" — metaphysical or spiritual — aspects of the farm, with the intention of achieving balance between physical and non-physical realms.
Bio-intensive — A combination of biodynamics and the French-intensive method of farming, which involves using raised beds, with crops planted very close together and in combination with other crops.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) — A farm that is funded by a group of community members. In exchange for a membership fee, members are entitled to an assortment of fresh-picked produce every week throughout the growing season.
Permaculture — Permanent agriculture, a land-use concept that refers to the design of ecological human habitats and food production systems with the goal of harmonious integration of human dwellings, annual and perennial plants, animals, soil and water, into stable, productive communities.
Sustainable agriculture — An agricultural system that is ecologically sound, economically viable and socially just — a system capable of maintaining productivity indefinitely.
Source: University of California Cooperative Extension, Eureka, Calif.
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