Rooted in the Desert, First Time Farmer Demonstrates Profit Potential of Small Scale Farming
June 5, 2013 | Suzanne Heyn
At 7:15 on a late May morning, the Arizona sun has yet to bake everything in its path — including the vegetables growing at Desert Roots Farm, on the southeastern outskirts of Phoenix.
Owner Kelly Saxer’s staff is bringing in the day’s harvest, bagging carrots with huge leafy tops and weighing zucchini into bags. The vegetables will eventually make their way to the farm’s roughly 300 Community Supported Agriculture members awaiting the weekly vegetable haul.
Desert Roots sprawls over 25 acres that Saxer farms without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Instead of chemicals, she uses compost or manure and weeds by hand. Crop rotation allows the soil to rest between production.
This chemical-free farming method requires heavy labor, but Saxer believes in the health benefits of pesticide-free produce and has never considered using chemicals on her land. Over the past 12 years, Saxer has watched the popularity of organic produce surge.
“When I first started, organics were a luxury,” she said. “Now it’s much more mainstream.” Most of her customers are average, working people.
Saxer herself is an average, working person, and when she decided to start a farm, she did it with the intention of proving that running a profitable farm was possible. People don’t often think about small-scale farming as a career option, she said.
“I thought it was either big or nothing.” Saxer wasn’t going big, so when she selected her first career, she chose accounting. Crunching numbers all day while stuck indoors eventually grew tiresome, and she returned to school to earn a master’s degree in agribusiness from Arizona State University.
To learn how to farm, Saxer began spending time at Scottsdale Community College’s community garden.
To be successful, Saxer knew she would need a good business model. Farming wasn’t a charity case. “We live in a capitalist country. If it’s not profitable, you shouldn’t do it,” she said.
While investigating potential business models, she came across CSAs, which allow community members to purchase shares of a farm.
Saxer likes the model because it provides stability. She sells subscriptions by 12-week seasons, and uses the sales to drive the quantity of each crop planted. The predictability allows her to employ a full-time staff, instead of constantly hiring people and laying them off. This subscription model also creates pressure, however, since she must produce enough crops to supply waiting customers.
An ability to consistently produce is key for a successful CSA model, Saxer says. Consistency, however, takes practice. When Saxer first started, she focused more on farmer’s markets while building her confidence and farming abilities.
In 2001, Saxer planted her first crops on two acres in Glendale, in Phoenix’s west valley. The first year, she bought a tractor. By the third or fourth year, she earned a profit.
At first, Saxer toiled on the farm alone, without staff, and kept a part-time job, working the 5 a.m. to noon shift at the front desk of a local health club.
In 2003, Saxer bought 2.5 acres and a house in Queen Creek, closer to her family and with more plentiful water availability. Farmable land available for lease around the property allowed for expansion opportunities. Over the years, Saxer leased additional acres, growing Desert Roots to the 25 acres it spans today.
Leasing land to farm in Phoenix is very affordable, Saxer said. Having land zoned for agriculture reduces landowners’ property tax burdens. However, the land must be actively farmed to keep the agriculture zoning. This creates opportunity for farmers, who can lease land annually for about $150 per acre.
The farm’s incremental growth helped ease the financial risk, said Saxer, and made the venture less scary. She expanded bit by bit, each success opening the way for the next step.
The CSA began with eight customers — “all of which were my parents’ friends,” Saxer said. Through word-of-mouth, farmer’s markets and some advertising, she grew her customer base to the roughly 300 members the CSA enjoys today.
Saxer says she was one of the first farms in Phoenix to start a CSA model. Now, the concept has gained in popularity and people now approach Saxer instead of her chasing prospective members. “It’s something that’s in demand now,” she said.
In 2011, the New Times, a local alternative weekly, named Desert Roots the area’s best CSA. Members enjoy a variety of produce throughout the year, ranging from kale and bok choi to beets and onions to watermelon and cantaloupe. Partnerships with other local businesses allow members to add-on locally produced cheese, bread or beef.
Despite the farm’s success, Saxer faces daily challenges similar to those of other organic farmers, including work intensity and water. Weeding alone requires hours upon hours of effort. Although Saxer employs five, she says she has enough work for 50.
Arizona’s hot, dry climate makes water a challenge even as it creates a year-round growing season. The large-scale commercial farmer next door helps Saxer negotiate annual water allotments with the water company.
The allotment varies depending upon several factors, including the previous year’s rainfall. Saxer’s large-scale farmer friend, with his large-scale farmer clout, helps negotiate enough water to make the crops grow.
The two enjoy a friendly relationship. The large farmer even fertilizes downstream and takes care not to spray pesticides on windy days to avoid contaminating Desert Roots’ crops.
Having achieved her main goal of proving the viability of a profitable, small-scale farm, Saxer is enjoying her life and doesn’t have large plans for future growth.
“It’s so cool to just be able to go out the back door and see the farm,” she said.
To aspiring farmers, Saxer urges them to get started. “A lot of people overthink it,” she said. “Just start planting.” If there’s a vacant lot in the neighborhood, she recommends contacting the owner and asking about starting a garden.
Farmers markets offer a good venue for fledgling farmers to build a base of support and sell produce while developing their capacity for consistent production.
“I didn’t do it all at once,” said Saxer. And still, “It’s turned into something pretty cool.”