THE REGION’S AGRIBUSINESS SECTOR
By June C. Hussey
Farming in the desert is nothing new. It dates back thousands of years.
Like most other businesses, farming here has always depended on human ingenuity to sustain itself, and in the Tucson region, that ingenuity has evolved over the years into culinary creativity leading to Tucson being named the first City of Gastronomy in the U.S. five years ago.
In Arizona, it’s a business with a $23-billion impact, said George Frisvold, professor of Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Arizona.
“That is agribusiness at large, everything up and down the supply chain, which includes what’s going on at the farm, inputs they buy, food processing and economic multiplier effects,” Frisvold said. “There are a lot of folks involved in getting food on our tables, from the people in the field harvesting the crops, to the people who are processing meat, to the people who are working as checkers at the retail level, to the people who are driving trucks.”
The recipe for bringing tasty local flavors out of the soil all the way to our tables began to take shape when heritage crops like corn, beans and squash, known as the “three sisters,” are thought to have been farmed collectively by indigenous peoples here as long as 4,000 years ago.
Then as today, access to water in the desert set the stage. The Hohokam community is known to have used canals to irrigate crops in the 1400s. Native American, Spanish and Anglo farmers ever since have coaxed nourishment from fertile soil for generations near Southern Arizona’s precious riparian streams.
When large-scale copper mining came to Southern Arizona in the late 19th century, the insatiable pumping of groundwater began leaving farmers even more dependent on seasonal rainfall and irrigation. During the 20th century, mass-produced food grown throughout the industrialized world and distributed widely through grocery stores curbed demand for local produce. However, as the 21st century’s slow-food movement gained traction, consumers opened their eyes – and their mouths – once again to the nutritional, cultural and flavorful benefits of locally sourced ingredients leading to an industry that combines food production with healthy lifestyles, dining and tourism.
Onto the Fork
While onsite dining in Tucson’s eclectic local restaurants is one way to experience and support our City of Gastronomy, home cooks can also look to Tucson’s top internationally acclaimed chefs and cookbook authors for inspiration.
Chef Janos Wilder helped put Tucson on the world gastronomy map long before UNESCO designated it a City of Gastronomy. He was aptly appointed president of the Tucson City of Gastronomy board when it was created in 2016 after Tucson received the designation in December 2015.
Before opening Janos, his first Tucson restaurant in 1983, the French-trained chef planted on-premise gardens to supply the herbs and produce he intended to serve. His contemporary nouvelle American restaurant soon launched Wilder into culinary orbit.
Two decades after earning James Beard’s Top Chef of the Southwest title in 2000, Wilder has scaled back his commercial operations to the Carriage House, a catering kitchen and historic event venue located at 125 S. Arizona Ave. downtown.
Home cooks can sign up for lessons from the chef or attempt to emulate Wilder’s recipe for salmon carpaccio and other dishes as published in his “Recipes and Tales from a Southwest Restaurant.” Those finding they have more green chilis than they know what to do with will love experimenting with his 30 traditional Mexican recipes along with contemporary interpretations in “The Great Chile Rellenos Book.”
Another qualified ambassador for Tucson’s farm-to-fork culinary scene is Chef Ryan Clark. Having graduated at the top of his class from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and having earned titles including Tucson’s Iron Chef, Copper Chef and one of the Top 10 Best New Chefs of the Southwest, Clark is Executive Chef for the AAA Four-Diamond and Forbes Four-Star Hotel Casino Del Sol Resort and Spa.
The Tucson native relies on local and sustainable ingredients, including grains from Hayden Mills, Molino Pierson De Terrenate and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe (milled in-house). Clark said that pastas are made in-house by hand using a local blend of White Sonora and Blue Beard wheat semolina flours. His breads use local wheat grains and sourdough starter which enhance the nutritional aspect and flavor. Whole grains are boiled until tender, fried until crispy then added to salads and entrees.
“We work with local farmers months in advance to see what ingredients we should be highlighting. That could mean they have an abundance of something or simply that an item is at its peak for harvesting,” Clark said. During competitions and cooking classes alike, Chef Clark emphasizes ingredients like chilis, cactus varieties, beans, honey and nuts. “I think these ingredients not only highlight the region but also underscore the phrase, ‘What grows together goes together.’ Tucson and Arizona have come a long way in the past few years making local ingredients more accessible to restaurateurs.”
In his cookbook “Modern Southwest Cooking,” Clark shares his recipes for Prickly Pear Mojito, Yam and Ginger-Jalapeno Pavé, California Halibut with Sautéed Succotash, Hanger Steak Chimichurri and Habañero Crème Brûlée, to name a few.
Longtime chef and restaurateur Carlotta Flores has been described as “a force of nature.” At an age when many people are kicking back and showing off pictures of their grandchildren, Flores not only serves as the executive chef of Tucson’s three El Charro Café, she also has her hand in a host of related projects.
They include the muscle-car-themed Sir Veza’s restaurants, with two Tucson-area and three Phoenix-area locations; Hecho en Vegas, a dining room in the MGM Grand Resort featuring dishes from El Charro and Sir Veza’s; the Stillwell House and Garden, a downtown Tucson events venue and catering company; Carlotta’s Kitchen, a Tucson commissary that turns out specialty burritos for 7-Eleven outlets across southern California, and a Mexican food concession at Tucson’s Rillito Park Race Track.
That’s not counting the numerous charitable events she participates in, or the boards on which she serves.
Don Guerra, owner and baker at Barrio Bread, grew up in the Phoenix area and enjoyed baking with his mother and eating his nana’s tortillas. He attended the University of Arizona to study anthropology and then headed to Flagstaff. Don worked in several bakeries before opening The Village Baker of Flagstaff in 1995. A few years later, he moved to Ashland, Oregon, to open The Village Baker of Ashland.
After returning to Tucson, Guerra completed a degree in education and taught K-12 grade students for seven years. As time passed, he yearned to return to the artistry and passion of his baking days and started experimenting with new recipes. A “garage bakery remodel” yielded Barrio Bread in 2009.
Guerra is committed to working with local farmers, chefs and other food producers to strengthen the local grain economy and grow the local food network. In 2015, he was awarded a USDA Local Food Promotion Grant that significantly helped him to increase collaboration with others and expand production with a new bakery. He has taught a variety of baking classes and presented at conferences and workshops in the United States and internationally, highlighting his business model and work with heritage grains.
Carolyn Niethammer has been writing about foods of the Southwest for more than four decades. Niethammer’s most recent cookbooks include “The Prickly Pear Cookbook,” which shares recipes from great professional chefs for both the bright pink prickly pear fruit and nopales, the nutritious pads; “The New Southwest Cookbook,” with 135 recipes from top restaurant and resort chefs throughout the Southwest; and “Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.” Niethammer also produces “Savor the Southwest,” a blog about seasonal edible wild plants.
Regional Food Producers
The San Xavier Cooperative Farm, run by members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, revived the ancient tradition of community farming in 1971, producing hardy heritage crops like 60-day summer corn and ha:l or “big squash.” Twice a week volunteers are welcome at the farm to help nurture these traditional desert cultivars. Located in the ancestral village of Wa:k, just east of the Mission San Xavier del Bac, this farm is benefiting from the recent partial revival of the Santa Cruz River which flows north through the San Rafael Valley from the Mexican border, thanks to long-term recharge efforts. Visitors to the farm can see evidence of the environmental restoration in the cottonwoods, willows and cattails growing near the source. Seasonal crops plus wild gathered and prepared products are available for purchase at the farm weekdays and Saturdays.
Aravaipa Farms Orchard and Inn is on a scenic 90-minute drive north of Tucson off State Route 77. These farms produce apricots, peaches and pears that have Tucson chefs and diners alike drooling. Nestled on the river bottom where the perennial Aravaipa Creek flows through it, the orchard was originally planted in 1885. Under current owners Kevin and Jill Madden’s care since 2017, 750 new trees have been planted making a total of 900 trees in production, with seasonally changing produce available for the picking or convenient pick up at Heirloom Farmer’s Market.
For full immersion in the farm experience, guests can arrange to stay a few nights in one of five charming casitas or a beautifully restored three-bedroom farmhouse adjacent to the orchard. Egg-producing hens and a ¼-acre estate garden supply the inn’s chefs with hyper local ingredients for meals prepared in the onsite commercial kitchen. Overnight guests look forward to farm-cooked meals after spending the day bird watching or hiking the nearby Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness area (permit required). After a nightcap under the Milky Way, they retreat to comfortable beds for a good night’s rest. Mornings bring the sound of birds along with the aroma of coffee and freshly baked breakfast treats served with home-made peach or citrus jam.
Green Valley Pecan Company is one of the world’s largest growers and processors of organic pecans. The company has been growing pecans in the Santa Cruz River Valley for more than 60 years. Unfortunately, recent years have presented daunting challenges to the operation, according to Nan Stockholm Walden, VP and counsel.
“Trade tariffs have had a devastating effect on agriculture in general and the tree nut industry in particular,” she said. “They have made it impossible for Green Valley Pecan Company to compete with nuts grown in Australia, South Africa, Mexico and South America.”
To add insult to injury, Stockholm said, along came COVID-19. “We cannot operate the farm and shelling plant by laptop or remote control. We must keep our employees safe and our farm and plant operating amidst falling prices and demand. Even when a vaccine is available, we believe many sectors will see a slow comeback over several years.” Walden’s sobering perspective makes a solid case for shopping local. The Green Valley Pecan Store is a pecan lover’s dream online at www.pecanstore.com or in person at 1625 E. Sahuarita Road.
Prickly pears grow wild in the Sonoran Desert and birds aren’t the only ones who love them. Since 1985, Cheri’s Desert Harvest has been producing all natural and organic preserves, candy, syrup and quick mixes made from prickly pears and other local, indigenous fruits and vegetables.
Owner Cheri Romanoski started out making syrups and jellies in her home kitchen. Cheri’s Desert Harvest still relies on hand harvesting, processing and preparing products in small batches. No artificial flavoring, coloring or preservatives are used, only natural, locally sourced prickly pear cactus fruit, citrus, peppers and honey. In addition to the novelty foodstuffs, Cheri’s sells apparel dyed with prickly pear juice and an anti-aging oil made for the cosmetic industry from cactus seeds. Any leftover waste is used as feed at the zoo. Consumers can find Cheri’s products in tourist venues, department stores and at www.cherisdesertharvest.com.
Young Farmers to the Rescue
The average age of Arizona farmers is over 60, a fact that is by no means unique to Arizona. The future of farming rests largely on the shoulders of incoming generations. Young farmers face many barriers to entry, one of biggest of which is access to affordable farmland.
Housing development pressures inflate the value of open land beyond what a farm can produce. Student loan debt often restricts access to capital. In addition, farming is physically taxing, particularly in Southern Arizona which is a year-round growing climate with extreme conditions. Add mental stress, isolation, lack of health insurance and retirement savings, and it is easy to understand the challenges young farmers are facing.
Cameron Jones, 34, is a lifelong Arizonan and self-described farmer without farmland and member of the Southern Arizona Young Farmer & Rancher Coalition. SAYFRC is committed to lowering the farmer’s average age by developing more young farmers and establishing more farms.
A bright spot on the horizon, according to Jones, is that more people are starting to recognize the importance of nurturing young farmers.
“Investments have been made by the Community Food Bank and others to support current growers and develop more markets, find new customers, and ensure stable demand for their produce,” Jones said. “Now we need to build an agricultural pipeline in our region that provides training and land access for younger people as they move from school gardens, to community gardens, to summer jobs and apprenticeships on farms, to full-time farm jobs, and finally to running their own operations on an incubator farm or as part of a cooperative farm that can share equipment, infrastructure, and other resources.”
Jones points out that pieces of this pipeline are already in place in Tucson and Southern Arizona. Tucson Unified School District’s School & Community Garden Program with UArizona, Tucson Village Farm, 4H and Future Farmers of America, IRC’s New Roots program and Las Milpitas de Cottonwood Community Farm are examples.
“We need to connect these existing pieces and expand them to include farmland for growers who want to grow beyond small, urban plots and increase their productive capacity on the peripheries of Tucson, and on farmland throughout Pima, Santa Cruz, and Cochise counties,” Jones said. “We also need to be creative with making public lands and unused private land available to farmers.”
That would include flood-plain land adjacent to washes, open space farms and ranches owned by Pima County, and fallow farmland currently unused and in private hands. The land and water resources are out there, Jones said, and the region needs a vision and a plan to put them to work to increase the region’s food security.
“We need to invest in the training and financial capacity of young farmers to be able to take over management of farmland in our region and support them in producing food sustainably, utilizing best practices that conserve and maximize limited water resources,” Jones said. “Above all we need consistent demand for their products so that they know they will be able to sell what they grow, and do so at a price that covers the cost of production as well as compensates them for their time, labor and skill. If this was going to happen on its own, the long-term trends in farming wouldn’t be what they are. We need to actively invest in agriculture to change its trajectory in our region.”