While the East Coast clears out after Winter Storm Jonas, Phoenix has reached its prime growing season.
At an urban farming initiative downtown, beginning farmers harvest lettuce, carrots, beets, and greens, said Kelly Young, an assistant agent in the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension in Phoenix.
They’re part of the extension’s push to establish new, young farmers, which started at the U.S. Department of Agriculture but is felt locally at the farmers market.
“There’s a frightening trend where farms are disappearing. … We worry who’s going to grow our food,” Young said. “I get calls from farmers market managers looking for more growers. There’s 4 million people in our county and there’s not that many farms. There’s huge demand for local food but not that much supply. There’s plenty of room for more growers.”
On average, farmers in the U.S. are 57 years old, according to the USDA. In the last five years, the industry saw a 30 percent rise in the number of farmers over age 75 and a 20 percent decline in the number of farmers under age 25.
To reverse the trend, young farmers need help entering the field. Oftentimes high costs and a lack of land stand in their way. UA extension’s new farmers program incubates startups by providing free urban farming plots with free irrigation in the Phoenix Urban Research Farm.
In 2012, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton wanted to beautify the city by cutting down on the number of vacant lots. He initiated PHX Renews, which turns those vacant areas into “community and educational space." That came to include the university’s urban research farm. Urban farming was seen as a way to "green up" an ugly lot, Young said.
The arrangement gave extension a prime location for an urban farm. In a 2013 video, you can see downtown skyscrapers behind the extension agent as she tours the plots, documenting which cover crops performed best in the space during an experiment to rebuild the soil. The farm is conveniently located at a light rail stop.
“We get a lot of visibility, a lot of exposure,” Young said. “I think it’s good for people to see food growing in the city. It reminds people that food comes from the land.”
PHX Renews is meant to be a temporary use of space, so the urban farm won’t be an eternal fixture in Phoenix. Eventually, the area will be developed. But Young anticipates they’ll have it for a few more years.
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While the farm started with cover crop research, Young said they quickly learned that Maricopa County really needed an incubation farm where new farmers could get their start, bypassing the usual roadblocks to land and water. In Phoenix, there are two types of water: one for drinking and one for irrigation. Water for irrigation is cheaper but fewer properties have access to the canals it comes from.
“It’s challenging to find land that has access to that affordable water for growers,” Young said. “Our growers needed land so it seemed like a good time to transition.”
For the most part, the farmers run their own show, and extension agents are available for technical assistance as needed. Farming in a low desert has its own set of considerations. They don’t encounter many pest problems, Young said, but the soil can be more difficult to manage.
The downtown lot is divided into small parcels, which are given to groups or individuals. Some have found success, such as the Community Exchange – an organization that keeps a booth at the farmers market, letting other backyard gardeners or farmers sell through them. Community Exchange handles all the selling so the farmer or gardener doesn’t have to be there, then keeps 20 percent of sales.
Meanwhile, others in the in beginning farmers program have determined growing food is not their calling. Young figures it’s better for them to find out on a free plot than anywhere else.
“We want them to go on to be successful farmers on their own. We want them to experiment – try things,” she said. “If they want to keep most of it for their own families, that’s fine too. We’re pretty loose.”
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Farmers market photo via Songquan Deng / Shutterstock