Four Young Farmers Grow Thriving Sustainable Operation in Southern Arizona
July 1, 2013 | Suzanne Heyn
The first winter that Adam Valdivia and his three partners spent at Sleeping Frog Farms in southern Arizona was colder than they expected. The weather station was on a ridge, and so the temperatures they were using to guide their farming were about 10 degrees warmer than the air surrounding their plants.
“We had a really big hit,” Valdivia recalled. “We had jumped into an unknown and it came back to bite us in the butt.” Their root crops didn’t die, but were too soft to sell. The fava beans were devastated.
Since then, the four, which include Valdivia and his wife, Debbie Weingarten, C.J. Marks, and Clay Smith, have learned to adjust.
“We had an even harder winter this year,” said Valdivia, but with remedies such as using two to four layers of frost cover instead of one and using a hoop house, the quartet weathered the season. They still haven’t planted fava beans again.
But the learning curve the team has experienced over the past five years of farming has paid off. Now, they’re making enough to pay the bills and earn a small salary while pursuing a robust business model that includes a mix of CSA, farmer’s markets, and sales to restaurants and grocers — all while dreaming of future expansion.
Valdivia, Weingarten and Marks became friends while working at a farm in Amado, Ariz. When the farm’s focus turned toward agritourism instead of growing food, they decided to start their own venture. Smith, Valdivia’s long-time friend, joined in. The four range in age from late 20s to late 30s.
To start, they pooled their savings and leased a 1/4 of an acre 12 miles from downtown Tucson and began growing specialty crops to sell to restaurants. After about six months, the crew expanded to one acre before deciding they wanted to own their own land and build equity along with their brand.
Sleeping Frog Farm’s previous owner wanted to pass on his 75-acre property to organic farmers. The owner was in a financial position to offer the crew financing, and so they make mortgage payments to the former owner.
When the four realized the new farm would come to fruition, they started their first CSA and took the money to purchase equipment. Today, the CSA has 150 members.
More recently, to pay for added employees, the team developed a proposal and asked the CSA to help. “It’s a really cool, alternative method of financing,” said Valdivia.
Now Certified Naturally Grown, they’ve employed sustainable practices from the start. Their collective interest in eating sustainably grown, pesticide-free produce ultimately led to the desire to grow wholesome food, said Valdivia.
To ensure soil heath, they rotate crops, add organic matter through cover cropping and mulching, and use beneficial companion planting. Recently, Valdivia said he saw earthworms in the first bed the group planted three years ago at their current location, which signals healthy soil.
Of the farm’s 75 acres, roughly 45 are farmable. By the summer’s end, they will have 15 acres in production. Valdivia said the crew is starting to work on land elsewhere in southern Arizona, land in a warmer microclimate to increase winter crop production. Potentially, Sleeping Frog Farms will one day expand to a cooler climate to grow stone fruits and berries.
Already each season, the farm produces between 50 and 80 fruit and vegetable varieties, including tomatoes, carrots and greens. They also offer eggs and goat’s milk soap made with herbs and desert plants, made in partnership with the local Barrio Botanicals.
To increase their wintertime cash flow, Sleeping Frog Farms aims to increase production of storage crops, such as sweet potatoes. They’re also working with local restaurants to can and pickle food to sell during the cold months. Arizona’s population expands during its mild winters, with part-time residents and college students, increasing business opportunity.
The farm plans to incorporate aquaponics on the property’s ponds to take advantage of its water supply.
Sleeping Frog Farms has come a long way from those first few seasons of high-stakes trial and error. “It was tough,” Valdivia said. “It was invigorating because it was the excitement of doing a new thing. We were kind of riding on that excitement.”
Valdivia said building Sleeping Frog Farms with a team was helpful in getting through the early days. “I think the only way you make it through is as a labor of love,” he said. “Starting small has been really good for us.”
Building relationships with customers and restaurants has been invaluable in building their brand and customer base, Valdivia said. Finding creative methods of financing is also helpful. CSAs, he says, are a good model because they allow farmers to collect money up front for investing in needed materials and equipment.
Small-scale, sustainable farming is difficult and requires perseverance, Valdivia said. But, “it’s definitely possible. Absolutely possible.”