Ranching for Conservation along the U.S./Mexico Border

Thirty-eight miles from the Arizona/Sonora border lies a fourth-generation ranch managed by two young ranchers, Sarah and Joe King. The ranch spreads over 55,000 acres of private and state land, rising up over the Baboquivari Mountains. Sarah and Joe raise 450 head of grass-fed cattle to sell at auction, slaughtering only a few due to the lack of local processing options.

Ranching in the borderlands, with little forage and water, is no easy task. Sarah and Joe have unique struggles and impressive triumphs.

Located just an arm’s stretch from the border between Mexico and the United States, Sarah and Joe navigate and cultivate a host of relationships with U.S. Border Patrol and migrants.  This reality, for the most part, is unheard of and unknown to suburban neighborhoods in nearby towns and cities.

Many border-crossers begin their journey in Nogales, Mexico, either alone, in groups or in a group led by a coyote.  Migrants are often told that they won’t need much food, water or special clothing because they’ll arrive in Phoenix, Arizona (the capital) three days after they begin their journey.  But that journey is more than 180 miles. While a person may be able to walk 10 or 20 miles in a day, depending on age and ability, this terrain includes the steep mountain crags in the Baboquivari’s.  According to Sarah, climbing five miles in a given day over the mountains would be a reasonable estimation. A few months ago, one woman crossing the border arrived at the K.A. Ranch wearing stiletto shoes; her son was barefoot. 

Sarah sees border-crossers approximately twice a month, but sometimes more frequently. By the time migrants arrive at the King’s Anvil Ranch, they’ve often run out of water and food and suffer from heat exhaustion. These conditions by themselves are enough to induce desperation or belligerence in an otherwise non-violent person.  Last year, Joe came across a dead man.  But not all border-crossers are seeking a new life in the States.  Sarah and Joe also live in a drug-smuggling corridor. 

Ranching on the border grows more complicated still.  Migrant trails result in changes to geomorphology: Water flow is altered, increasing run-off and erosion.  Furthermore, border-crossers leave trash in their wake.  A few miles from the King’s Anvil Ranch there is a trash pile as big as a house.  And because migrants primarily eat packaged or tin foods with long shelf lives, this trash becomes problematic for cattle, too.  For instance, if a cow steps on a tuna can, its skin will literally grow around the can and become infected.

Finally, Sarah and Joe understand the necessity of having a working relationship with the United States Border Patrol, which includes sharing with them the importance of ranch etiquette, such as closing fences so the cattle don’t escape to another pasture.  The Border Patrol’s new ranch liaison has been a huge help to Sarah and Joe.

But despite these hardships and challenges, the King family has worked this land for generations.  Nestled in the heart of the Altar Valley, this ecosystem is host to some of the most biologically rich and ecologically threatened biotic communities in the entire world. Sarah and Joe ranch side-by-side with other, multi-generation ranches that, apart from the Tohono O’odham Nation to the west, make up the largest unfragmented watershed in Pima County.  These families have come together in the last 17 years to form a collaborative group called the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance.  Along with other organizations and citizens, the Alliance enhances the watershed through science and restoration projects. 

Even before the Alliance came into existence, the King family was actively working their landscape to restore the land and maintain its longevity for generations to come.  Joe’s grandfather started working with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) back in the 1950s.  The King family planted crops for livestock forage and erosion prevention.  They removed invasive mesquites that deprived native grasses of sunlight and necessary moisture.  They implemented cross-fencing and pasture rotation.  Some pastures lacked water, so they built water infrastructure–pipelines to wells and aquifers–so that animals didn’t need to walk the long distances to rehydrate.  With increased water access across the ranch, cattle could move seasonally, giving pastures a chance to rest (reducing soil compaction and erosion) and regenerate.

Today Sarah and Joe look out across their landscape and study what native grasses are blooming.  They do NRCS monitoring at different sites.  They’ve reintroduced fires.  They’re using solar technology to pump water.  Earlier this year they hosted a watershed restoration project, inviting Bill Zeedyk and Steve Carson to install rock structures that harvest upland rainwater to reestablish vegetation and prevent erosion.  The Border Patrol came out to help, too. 

In the coming months, Sarah and Joe will begin to prepare for Fall Round Up.  They’ll wean mama cows in pens by the big hay barn and sell calves at auction, on the internet or to private buyers.  They’ll navigate with and around Border Patrol in one of the most active border-crossing corridors in the United States. They will put the cows out with the bulls in the lower pasture and herd on horseback to the road and fence lines. Sarah and Joe will look for ways to reduce erosion and watch for blooms of native grasses.

A Farm By and For Youth in Tucson, Arizona

Nestled a stone’s throw from the Rillito River lies an urban farm built by and for youth in Tucson, Arizona.  Before Tucson Village Farm broke ground, founder Leza Carter worked at a multitude of school gardens.  In January of 2010, armed with a strong understanding of the benefits and constraints of the traditional school garden model, Leza decided to start a new type of youth garden with three goals in mind: to encourage children to experience nature, regardless of where they went to school; to give children a place to stay busy; and to reconnect children to a healthy food system. Now, two years later, approximately 150 school-aged children visit Tucson Village Farm every week.  The farm offers year-round, instructional, hands-on programs for youth of all ages. To date Tucson Village Farm has served over 4,800 students.

 Leza recalls when Tucson Village Farm first broke ground: “It was on MLK Day. We dug a few holes.  I brought three tools from home, a couple of seed packets…  We started off with four rows.”  Today, Tucson Village Farm is a colorful menagerie: a host of crops and painted signs decorate nearly an acre on the northern side of the farm.  Last year additional acreage on the southern side of the farm was covered with a native variety of heirloom popcorn. Children planted, weeded, harvested, and popped these kernels, and ate them for afternoon snacks in the fall. 

Tucson Village Farm has had a profound impact upon youth in the Tucson community in a very short time.  But, as with farming, success is hard work. Initially funded by grants and donations, Tucson Village Farm is now an all-volunteer venture, with the exception of one part-time manager. The Farm offers scholarships to Farm Camp, thanks to the proceeds from its weekly You-Pick. (“Friend” them on facebook for reminders.) Tucson Village Farm is eager to expand its programs.  They need big items (like a commercial kitchen) and small ones (like a few new hay bales). More volunteers are also needed.  If you are in the Tucson area, drive down Campbell Avenue and see what the kids are up to. If you have kids, bring them along.  And if your pipsqueaks are looking for a summer in the sun, sign them up for Farm Camp, where they will learn farm basics (planting, irrigating, weeding, harvesting) and enjoy eating the fruits of their labor. Kids collect and mill fall-planted wheat, roll their own pizza dough, make cheese, cook omelets, watch chicks hatch, and get a chance to “milk” Gertie, the mechanical cow. And if you’re a young adult who enjoys working with youth and are interested in learning about desert food production and urban agriculture, you’re in luck: Tucson Village Farm is looking for three volunteer interns to assist with Farm Camp. Download an application online.

Last week a kindergartner came to the farm and swore she wouldn’t eat anything green.  But when she was served the last of the farm’s winter greens, she polished her salad bowl with her tongue and asked for seconds! Tucson Village Farm is nourishing this community one young person and one fruit and vegetable at a time.   See for yourself at 4210 N. Campbell Avenue in Tucson, Arizona. 

Bringing Food to Desert Tables at Sleeping Frog Farms

Nestled in the San Pedro River Valley, just outside of Cascabel, Arizona, lies 75 acres of farmland with over a thousand chickens, a couple of goats, five WWOOFERs and Debbie, Adam, Clay, and CJ — the dynamic quartet who own and manage Sleeping Frog Farms.

Starting with a row of fava beans and a greenhouse nabbed from Craigslist for $500, Sleeping Frog Farms first broke ground four years ago on a small parcel of land–a former horse pasture–north of Tucson, Arizona. Within two years, Adam, Debbie, Clay, and CJ went from direct-marketing radishes (and not much else), to distributing produce at Tucson restaurants, offering CSA shares and selling an impressive variety of products (dates, vegetables, and eggs, to name a few) at a farmers’ market on Tucson’s north side.  They soon realized they would reach capacity on their small farm and decided to look for a larger plot of fertile land that could support increased production and an even greater variety of products. 

In May 2010 Adam, Debbie, Clay, and CJ bought the 75 acres of land outside of Cascabel. For several months they grew and harvested vegetables at both locations, making a gradual conversion to their new farm.  Since August of 2011, on this land flush with water from three domestic and two agricultural wells, Sleeping Frog Farms has been operating full-throttle. 

The rapid growth of Sleeping Frog Farms can be attributed to the collective experience and vision of the four managers. Together they bring to the table a unique set of skills and experiences, including non-profit work (Debbie), produce management (Adam), farm and irrigation know-how (CJ), and business management (Clay).  They share the same mission: to feed as many families in Southern Arizona as they can while preserving the health of the landscape by nurturing soil and animals without the use of pesticides.  As Adam put it, they would like to “close the loop,” using fewer off-the-farm inputs. In other words, they would like to create a self-sustaining production cycle. Adam explains that this can be achieved by using effective microorganisms and creating a balance with plants, animals, and insects, which negates the need for chemical applications and pesticides.  Think permaculture, or “permanent agriculture.”  As CJ put it, “If you have a healthy soil…the plants already know what to do.  It’s engrained in the enzymes in the seed—you give it good water and healthy soil, they do their thing.”

Their experience has not been without strife.  Unpredictability is inherent in farming. The daily temperature range is wide, there are many frosts and the wind corridors can be brutal. Furthermore, the four managers reinvest most of their earnings back into the farm.  While they sell produce to high-end restaurants in Tucson, Arizona, their paychecks don’t afford them the luxury of eating at those same establishments.  But these financial difficulties do not dampen or halt their progress.  They look toward the future: They hope to grow their CSA from its current membership of 105 to as many as 500 members by eventually farming 20 acres, with two-thirds in production and one-third in cover crop. They are also interested in small-scale grain production; over the next 20 years, they hope to grow enough grain to feed their own chickens, further closing the loop.

This week Sleeping Frog Farms will harvest broccoli rabe and sell multi-colored eggs to Tucson omelet aficionados at the St. Phillips Sunday Farmers’ Market.  If you live in Southern Arizona, you can support Debbie, Adam, Clay and CJ by buying their produce at the Food Conspiracy Co-Op, or by visiting their stand at the farmers’ market.  They welcome farm visits, too.  If you can’t make it out to Cascabel, check out this video (produced by Arizona Public Media) to experience, vicariously, what Sleeping Frog Farms is all about and to meet four champion growers who are investing in their land and in the future by growing good food—for both eater and land—for Southern Arizona.