Anyone consulting a map of the Tucson metro area will find a thin, but obvious, line—sometimes optimistically colored blue—called the Santa Cruz River. There was a time when the Santa Cruz wasn’t as dry as the desert surrounding it, a time when water actually made its way northward along that channel. It was real water, not just excess runoff from a sufficiently prolific July thunderstorm.
For centuries, near what is now the San Xavier Mission, the ancestors of today’s Tohono O’odham tapped the river. They guided the water toward the corn, squash, and bean seeds they had planted in the clumpy clay soil the river had deposited over millennia.
Now, decades after the river ran dry, the O’odham farm more than 850 acres with the goal of producing spiritual as well as physical sustenance.
The Tucson area was once dotted with farmland, noted Renee RedDog, one of more than 1,000 plot owners who allow their lands to be farmed as part of the San Xavier Coop Farm.
Today, there are a few cattle ranchers in the area, but the cooperative farm is one of the few spots growing crops, RedDog said. And though agricultural production in the San Xavier area has been re-established for more than 30 years, the farm is still growing. Those who run it have ambition.
“The farm could be a jewel. It could be the center of the community,” RedDog said. More importantly, it’s a place the Tohono O’odham can rely on for fresh, local food.
Some of the crops at the farm include corn, squash, beans, and peas that have been grown in the area for centuries. Part of the idea behind the heritage crops is to provide nutrition as well as tradition.
“For me, to carry on the traditional farming is huge,” said O’odham tribal member Gabriel Mendoza.
He got his first taste of farm work volunteering for TOCA, the Tohono O’odham Community Action group. They needed help with some field work as part of a harvest festival. “It just all sort of fell into place,” Mendoza said. He learned about irrigating crops and how to drive a tractor. When it was time to move on, the San Xavier Coop seemed a natural fit, he said, to work with the earth in the place his ancestors did.
He has what he describes as “a connection with the land. I’m not afraid to get dirty, work in the sun, and be part of this.”
Situated along Interstate 19 south of Valencia Road, the baize carpets of alfalfa almost scream in contrast to the rocky hills studded with saguaros across the freeway.
A residential neighborhood skirts the northern border of the farm, but it feels as though it’s miles from Tucson; the tractors seem to outnumber Toyotas, and roadrunners dash through furrows dotted with garlic and onions.
It wasn’t always so.
In the 1900s, RedDog said, the City of Tucson plunged more and more wells into the earth as the city grew and got thirstier. That, combined with nearby mining efforts, sucked dry the river and the water table beneath it.
In the 1970s, the San Xavier Cooperative Association was formed to revive farming efforts in the area. But the wells they used soon fell victim to the dropping water table, and farming without a steady supply of water is a task “difficult” doesn’t begin to define.
The O’Odham community turned to the courts for relief. When they sued the City of Tucson, the tribe won the right to have Central Arizona Project water lines extended to the farm to provide free irrigation. More importantly, the tribe’s ancestral claim to the area means they have priority water rights in times of drought.
“If something goes wrong,” RedDog said, “the community can rely on the farm.”
By the end of the 1990s, there were fewer than 100 acres in production, mainly alfalfa. Over the years, the farm has grown, and continues to do so; the cooperative’s governing board is looking at acreage across I-19 for possible expansion into orchards and organic beef operations.
Some things haven’t changed with the growth.
“There are no pesticides [used], still,” RedDog said. “That was a vision we had. They wanted the farm to succeed, but they wanted it to be a healthy farm and grow traditional crops.”
One of the expansion plans includes a larger composting operation. When a compost program at the University of Arizona needed a new home, the coop welcomed it, said Cie’na Schlaefli, who helps to run the farm’s nursery program. Coop directors have eyed diverting much of Tucson’s green waste to build up the compost reserve. Some of the compost will go to farms and gardens tended to by a local food bank, Schlaefli said, but most will help to amend the farm’s soil without the use of chemical fertilizers.
Coop board members say the farm is self-sufficient and gets no money from the Tohono O’odham nation. A main crop is still alfalfa, and the farm grows other grasses meant for livestock consumption. Although market prices for cattle feed are high, those who run the farm say they’re more interested in crop diversity than high profits.
Enter Bob Sotomayor, a man with the weathered hands and worn shirt that signal experience with serious farming. If it’s green and edible, that means Sotomayor is trying to find a way to get it to grow in the farm’s arid, taxing microclimates. Because the farm is located along the Santa Cruz River, it has a lower elevation; in the winter, when cool air pockets sink along the river, the farm can be 10 degrees colder than other parts of the Tucson area.
Sotomayor oversees two large greenhouses packed with budding plants. With an almost breathless enthusiasm, he shows visitors the grapes, cauliflower, oregano, and baby fig trees he’s cultivated. At the right time, he will select a plant and put it in the ground at the farm and wait to see if it can handle the cool winter, scorching summer, and somewhat alkaline soil of the farm. His dozens of chile plants produce peppers in shades of green, red, and even purple, with heat scales ranging from mild to thermonuclear.
“We do this to see what’s adapted to here, to see what we can expand,” Sotomayor said. Pointing to a small fig tree, he noted that figs pack a nutritional punch without providing a similar wallop to one’s blood sugar. That’s just the sort of healthy product he said the farm should be providing to the O’odham community. They know this fig species will do well at the farm, as it’s one the Spanish planted hundreds of years ago near the San Xavier Mission. The farm also counts among its crops the Tohono h:al, a mildly sweet squash that resembles a pale yellow pumpkin on steroids.
In addition to the crops, the coop offers flour ground from beans gleaned from the mesquite trees at the farm. Pickles and other canned goods are offered at the coop’s store, which is open to the public. The store is probably one of the few places in the country to buy mesquite and oatmeal cookie mix in a jar.
“A lot of people come in the door for our alfalfa, but then they see our other foods,” Schlaefli said.
Summertime offerings include watermelon and cantaloupe, but with the plant experimentation moving along, in the future the shelves could be filled with locally grown apples, plums, and even peaches.
But buyers don’t have to head to San Xavier to buy the farm’s produce. Tucson residents have likely already picked some up at local farmers’ markets, Whole Foods, or the Food Conspiracy Co-op on Fourth Avenue. ✜
San Xavier Cooperative Association and Farm. 8100 S. Oidak Wog. 520.295.3774. SanXavierCoop.org
Michael Mello is a writer who has worked for The Orange County Register and The Los Angeles Times. He is currently lost in Arizona.