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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Farmer’s Vision for Sustainable Agriculture Blossoms into Thriving Urban Farm in Phoenix, AZ

January 14, 2013 |

Crooked Sky Farms. Photo Credit: Monica Gonzalez.

In the late 90’s, Frank Martin set up a card table in the gravel parking lot of the local post office and sold zucchini he had grown in his garden. So began the Prescott Farmer’s Market and Frank’s transition from passionate gardener to profitable farmer.

“At that first market day, I made $60 and thought, ‘Whoa, I made bank!’” he recalls, laughing.

Around that time, he met some students from Prescott College who had heard about a new idea, this thing they called “community supported agriculture.” For a school project, they organized local farmers who wanted to participate in the CSA and assigned each grower five items to harvest each week. At the end of the six-week project, he knew that community supported agriculture was an efficient and lasting model for farming.

“I liked the idea behind it because what you harvest today goes out today,” he says. “With CSA’s, everything is pre-sold, and people pay several weeks in advance. You already know what you need to be harvesting and what you need to be doing. With 200 members, you pick 200 bunches of carrots. You’re neither over-picking nor under-picking; you have just the right amount.”

He appreciates the community supported agriculture model over farmer’s markets because with the market, growers have no idea what people will be buying or whether they’ll even be shopping that day at all. So many things affect the market turnout that farmers have no control over, such as bad weather, a local event or even something good on television.

Frank’s vision for sustainable and profitable agriculture literally blossomed into what is now a thriving urban farm in South Phoenix, with seventy percent of its business coming from community supported agriculture.

Frank is equally passionate about natural farming, and Crooked Sky Farms is Certified Naturally Grown, which means no synthetic chemical insecticides, herbicides, fungicides or fertilizers are used on the crops. With natural farming he also cares for the soil, water and air quality with crop rotation, cover crops, buffer crops and other sustainable farming practices.

In the spring, Crooked Sky invites a natural pesticide onto the farm: birds. Like a scene out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, red-wing blackbirds flock to the newly-tilled fields en masse to gobble up all of the weed seeds, aphids, grubs and caterpillars. When the birds dissipate, Frank knows the pests are all gone as well.

Crooked Sky Farms. Photo Credit: Monica Gonzalez.

“A bug doesn’t really care how he dies,” he says. “Poison, birds, it’s all the same to a bug. But for people, it matters because when you spray poison, it kills the bugs, but people end up ingesting some of it too. Ultimately, it’s about trying to select the best way for things to happen.”

Not surprisingly, water usage is an ever-present challenge for desert farmers. Crooked Sky is allotted three-acre-feet of water, and though they don’t reach that allotment, it requires constant attention to conserve and use water wisely. Using compost and other natural farming methods makes that easier, because compost holds water in the soil better than dry, sandy ground.

Finding labor also presents a challenge. Monica Gonzalez, the newest addition to the Crooked Sky team, says American culture plays a role in the labor shortage. “It’s just not part of the culture to have these types of jobs with so much physical labor,” she says

“It’s easy to find young people holding up signs saying ‘No GMO!’,” Frank adds. “But as for finding people who come out to the farm to do the actual work, well, that’s more challenging. There are not enough people interested in agriculture anymore.”

If you want to get him excited, ask Frank about onions. “This is his favorite,” Monica says, reaching into a drawer and pulling out what looks like a small shallot.

She offers a quick history lesson. In 1699, the i’itoi (ee-ee-toy) onion was brought by the Spaniards to the Papago Indians, the present day Tohono O’Odham. The Papagos had such a high reverence for it, they named it after one of their deities.

I'itoi onions from Crooked Sky Farms. Photo Credit: Pamela Ellgen.

Frank holds the onion up, like an adoring parent; “The thing about this onion that is so cool, is that it is a multiplying onion. At the end of the season, this one bulb will make about 140 shallots,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “And, it will grow 10-11 months out of the year here. It’s very drought-tolerant.”

Their enthusiasm for the i’itoi is spreading equally rapidly as customers from around the country request it. Monica laughs as she thinks about her frequent trips to the post office, where the clerks have come to recognize her as “the onion lady,” with the fragrant packages she sends.

In addition to onions, the farm grows carrots, beets, turnips, cauliflower, broccoli, romanesco, winter squash and other vegetables in its winter garden. They have another location for summer growing, where they harvest melons, cucumbers, summer squash and bell peppers.

But Frank is a dreamer, and he’s forever captivated by finding something new to grow. “I’m always excited about growing things. I love to go through seed catalogs see what’s new, what’s cool, or things that are being reintroduced.”

“A couple days ago, he tossed me a seed catalog and said, ‘What kind of tomatoes should we do?’” Monica says. “I said, ‘Well, we’re definitely doing the Monica tomato again!’ We’re very limited when we go to grocery stores. Frank wants people to experience a greater variety of produce, even if it does cost him a little more to grow it.”

Frank steps in from outside with a bunch of i’itoi onions, still cold from being unearthed and rinsed. “You have to try these,” he says. His pride spreads across his face in a broad grin.

Frank knows there might be easier ways of producing food. But as more and more consumers discover the beauty of eating local, naturally-grown produce in season, he knows his business will only continue to flourish.

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