Going Beyond Organic, Family Farm in Arizona Grows Crops on Vegan Diet
May 15, 2012 | Jessica Morey-Collins
Do you ever wonder what your produce eats? The Smith family, which owns and operates Sunizona Family Farms in Wilcox, AZ, does. Concerned with animal cruelty and the environmental impact of sourcing manures containing blood, bone and fishmeal from factory farms, the Smiths pioneered a strictly plant-based organic growing method that does not use any animal byproducts. They call it ‘veganic growing’.
The Smiths, who moved from British Colombia to Arizona, founded Sunizona Family Farms in 1996. The farm started out as a conventional greenhouse operation, growing long-English cucumbers and hothouse tomatoes with non-organic growing media and chemical fertilizers. Despite their success in selling and distributing their produce across the country, the Smiths longed to adopt local and organic practices to align with their ethical commitment to sustainability. However, as they did not want to use customary animal-based organic growing methods, the Smiths did not convert to organic until 2009 after they had perfected their plant-based veganic growing methods.
In developing their unique growing method, the Smiths looked to forest ecosystems in which foliage falls to the ground and decays, providing ample nutrition for vegetation. To replicate this forest ecosystem model in their greenhouse and fields, the Smiths developed a fertilizer formula created from local plant products, including alfalfa, beans, waste tomato leaves, and wheat. To create the end product, the Smiths blend these local plant products together and press them into pellets. These fertilizer pellets are then spread onto growing beds and watered. The nutrients from the plant-based pellets then break down into the soil, providing an ideal habitat for earthworms and microorganisms, and a rich source of food for the crops.
Sunizona Family Farms says that an additional benefit that accrues from using its veganic growing method is that it helps the farm avoid food safety issues like e.coli and salmonella, which are borne in animal fecal matter. Beyond issues of safety and humane treatment of animals, the Smiths use veganic practices to ensure that a full range of vitamins and minerals reach their crops.
“When an animal eats alfalfa or grass, its body needs certain nutrients to function. Those nutrients are kept for the animal’s well-being, and the waste that is produced is imbalanced,” says Janice Smith, who along with husband Byron, developed the farm’s veganic growing method. “Using animal waste as fertilizer makes it difficult to maintain soil balance.”
The Smiths recently began offering their veganic fertilizer to other farms and retailers. They also work with other sustainable and organic growers to help them adopt veganic growing methods. They have recently worked with small farms in California, Michigan, and Utah.
In addition to utilizing veganic growing methods, Sunizona Family Farms’ commitment to sustainability is evident in many other areas of its operations.
For example, in 2008, to heat their greenhouse, the family switched to a biomass boiler system using wood pellets created from locally grown waste pecan shells. A biomass boiler does not rely on fossil fuels, and does not release any more carbon dioxide into the environment than if the material were to decompose naturally. Additionally, the Smiths are able to use the leftover ash from the biomass boiler system as a fertilizer additive.
The Smiths also now sell nearly 95% of their produce locally; and they grow it 365 days a year. The farm currently grows a wide variety of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, micro-greens, herbs, salads, kale, chard, onions, beets, eggplants and more. In the summer months the Smiths grow an assortment of melons, squashes and strawberries.
Sunizona Family Farms currently sells their produce to all of the Whole Foods stores in the state of Arizona as well as to a few other small specialty chains and restaurants. In addition they recently began a CSA program called FarmBox, delivering standard or custom boxes of fresh, seasonable produce to pickup locations in the Tucson, Phoenix, and Wilcox areas.