On four and a half acres along the Pantano Wash, between stretches of housing developments, Dana Helfer and Paul Buseck are quietly sinking roots at Rattlebox Farm. In their third year on the property, they’ve begun to settle into seasonal routines. With summer comes the scaling back on harvesting and sales. Come September, a return to CSA shares and the farmers’ market. November means cooler mornings and row cover unrolled to cocoon the crops.
Buseck and Helfer met in 2001 during graduate school, working on the student farm at the University of California, Davis. Helfer grew up in suburban Colorado and had wanted to farm since high school. While her parents were supportive, they couldn’t fully understand what she meant. “No one, including me, had context of how to become a farmer,” she says. “It was before this movement of school gardens and before organic food was a global industry.”
Buseck was introduced to farming during a Peace Corps assignment in Cameroon as an agroforestry extension agent, where he spent two years working alongside farmers. “I learned to farm with a machete and a hoe,” he says, recalling that when he came back to the United States, he showed up for his first day of work at a California farm with his machete.
By the time Buseck met Helfer, he was considering farming for a living. During his second year of the Peace Corps, he had been given a small plot of land to farm on his own. He planted true yams and amaranth, corn, egusi melon. Just before leaving to return to the United States, he harvested enough to supply all the yams for the send-off party hosted by his village. It was a good feeling, one that stayed with him for many years.
But there were other experiences that caused Buseck to doubt a future in farming. Every week, he visited a pineapple farm owned by a farmer in his late 50s, Samuel Eyong, widely known by the nickname Grumble. “He was the most hardworking person I had ever met and a great farmer,” says Buseck. Once, while setting rodent traps around the farm, a trap snapped, cutting off part of Grumble’s finger. “We couldn’t find the finger, so he wrapped it in cloth and we walked into town and drank beers,” says Buseck. Such experiences—witnessing firsthand the physical risks inherent in agriculture, seeing the exhaustion in the faces of the farmers—helped Buseck to develop a healthy fear of farming.
In high school, Helfer gravitated toward “all things sustainable development.” She read books and attended workshops about permaculture, green building, composting, and integrated pest management. During her senior year, she grew a large vegetable garden with a friend. In college, Helfer began pursuing her interest in farming, studying abroad at an agricultural university in Honduras. It was her first immersion into growing crops at scale and working with livestock. “I realized how much I loved it,” she says, “But I wasn’t quite sure how to make it happen … How would I make a living? How would I ever buy my own land? It all seemed so far away.”
When Helfer moved to California to establish residency before graduate school, she worked with farmers and ranchers through the Natural Resource Conservation Districts. “I started to understand the interconnection between farming, ranching, and environmentalism,” she says. “I was exposed to this whole other world. I started to see farmers and ranchers as real people—not just these idealized people in my head. And I thought, I could do this.”
As part of his graduate degree, Buseck returned to his home state of Arizona, and spent two summers interning with Sells-based Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) as they began to re-establish a traditional floodwater farm and to recreate a local food system to help alleviate the diabetes epidemic within the community. This experience, and the relationships that emerged, played a role in Helfer and Buseck’s decision to move to Tucson. Buseck spent seven years working at Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC), helping to develop agriculture and natural resources degree and extension programs. Helfer worked for the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona for five years, starting the home gardening program and the 10-acre Marana Heritage Farm.
“We always knew we wanted to try farming together,” says Helfer. “But the questions were where and when and how big.” In 2008, they began the process of striking out on their own. Helfer quit her job and began expanding the garden in the backyard of their Menlo Park home. It was the beginning of a multiplot urban farm called Menlo Farms, spread throughout a handful of backyards and vacant lots in Tucson’s westside neighborhoods. In 2010, three months after their first child, Hazel, was born, Buseck quit his job and joined Menlo Farms fulltime. A year later, they began looking for a larger property.
They looked for two years, scouring listings in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, visiting properties multiple times in the Verde Valley and near Albuquerque, before refocusing on the Tucson area. They labeled a notebook The Dream Farm Notebook and filled it with thoughts for their future operation. “Our biggest priority was reliable clean water,” says Helfer, which meant they needed a well with grandfathered water rights. The land needed to be flat, already disturbed, and not planted with Bermuda grass. They also desired access to community, which ruled out more isolated locations.
Looking for land was frustrating, but ultimately, Helfer says it was an incredibly useful process. “We discovered that our dream farm was a fantasy. Everything was way too expensive, too isolated, or there wasn’t a house—there was always some significant drawback.”
Eventually they discovered the well records kept by the Department of Water Resources. They researched and mapped the Tucson properties with grandfathered wells. And then they sent a flyer—which described their operation and interest in purchasing a property for expansion—to 30 property owners.
In June 2013, a property owner responded. He was interested in selling his late parents’ 4.5-acre property on Tucson’s eastside. “It was great for what we were trying to do, and to be able to make a living,” says Helfer. They closed on the property in the fall of 2013, just before their son Levi was born.
Though they have always primarily been a CSA farm, relying on their customers to prepurchase vegetable subscriptions for income, each year Buseck and Helfer have changed their structure. “At the beginning of Menlo Farms, we had a refrigerator under our carport, and our CSA members would come pick up their orders,” says Helfer. While the CSA now amounts to 70 percent of sales, Rattlebox Farm produce is now sold to restaurants and at a full retail booth and CSA pick-up at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market. They grow 45 different crops, a mix of vegetables, melons, herbs, and flowers.
The farm has grown incrementally, and both are quick to say that it’s been a constant, humbling process of planning, learning, and improving year after year. Buseck says Helfer has always been ahead of him—that it was her vision and readiness to make the leap into full-time farming that started what would become Rattlebox Farm. But they’ve managed to strike a balance in their energy and focus. “I’m always forward moving,” says Helfer, “But Paul will say ‘We’re not there yet.’ Because of that, we are propelled forward, but we do it with a check.”
Both Helfer and Buseck have long been interested in permaculture principles and growing food in ways that replicate and support natural systems. In addition to being Certified Naturally Grown, a peer-reviewed alternative to Certified Organic, they use drip irrigation and practice minimal tillage, relying entirely on hand tools and a walking tractor to mow and till in crop residue and to prepare new beds. Buseck says they use only five to 10 gallons of gas per year for all of their farming activities. Additionally, they work to increase diversity among their vegetable crops, and to plant native plants around the perimeter of the farm.
“We still haven’t figured out the potential of this acre,” says Buseck, referring to the one acre planted with vegetables. “But our focus is incrementally working to maximize that space, which means doing it in a way that takes care of the soil and water. We want to find the balance between productivity and stewardship.”
Their agricultural philosophies have been inspired by living and working in southern Arizona for so many years. “Even though we primarily grow non-native plants, our orientation is informed by the work that Paul did with TOCA, and by volunteering for years with Desert Harvesters,” Helfer says. “It’s been informed by place and by the broader community of people in Tucson who have taught us how to be good desert dwellers. Over time, we are trying to modify and adapt our farm to work best within that system, while still keeping it productive and viable as a business.”
At the heart of Rattlebox Farm has always been a deep love for community. Both Buseck and Helfer say that the mentors, friends, and colleagues who have surrounded them as they have grown—as a farm, as a family—have been invaluable to their success. In turn, both farmers are committed to giving back. They want to host interns for educational programming through the Farm Education Resource Network (FERN). “We keep thinking, How do we use this place as a tool?” Helfer says. “We’re on a scale where people who are interested in farming could see what we’re doing and get ideas for that entry point into farming. Maybe it won’t feel so far away for them, like it did for us.”
“I’m just so grateful and indebted,” says Buseck. “And thankful that we’ve had all of these people come through our lives that value farming and see the importance of it on creating healthy families and communities.” ✜
Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer and a co-founder of the Farm Education Resource Network (FERN). She serves on the City of Tucson’s Commission on Food Security, Heritage, and Economy, as well as the Pima County Food Alliance Leadership Council.