Winter in Baja Arizona is full of life. While many farms in the North and Midwest regions are facing frozen topsoil, lack of sunlight, and temperatures too low to grow, Baja Arizona is buzzing.
During January and February, Don and Cris Breckenfeld of Breckenfeld Family Growers in Tucson are harvesting from the first ripe winter beds and planting a second round of winter vegetables. This way, the season is expanded from one to two harvests of winter crops. Hardy greens, herbs, and root vegetables are characteristic of the season.
The winter is also a time for cover crops to regenerate soil nutrients and create a fertile bed in which spring’s seeds will flourish. “Maintaining consistent soil fertility is key,” says Cris Breckenfeld. Previous fields are tilled, leaving the spent plants to compost underground. Winter rains help feed the compost, which will return enhanced levels of nitrogen to the soil.
The Breckenfelds use this time to plan crop rotation, important to balancing soil health and controlling pests. Aphids and other harmful bugs tend to not follow a certain crop if it is planted in one location for less than two years.
While temperatures in Tucson may not be reaching below 40 degrees at night, frost can settle in quite easily in higher elevations. Garlic that was planted in November, for example, will be utilizing the cold ground to stimulate growth of large bulbs. Other young, vulnerable starts of arugula and carrot lie under fabric row cover to protect from frost and birds. Once the plants reach just under a foot tall, the cover is removed to allow a healthy insect and worm population.
“By December, we’ll have onions and leeks in the ground,” says Don. By the end of January, green bulbing onions, known for their use in carne asada, are harvestable. Other harvestable crops include multiple varieties of beets, carrots, spinach, arugula, shallots, cilantro, and chard.
Breckenfeld Family Growers sells each Thursday evening at Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market. The farm’s produce is available at many local restaurants, including 5 Points Market & Restaurant, with the help of Pivot Produce, Baja Arizona’s up-and-coming food hub.
Top Knot Farms, a poultry producer, faces cooler temperatures and higher production during the holiday season. Located in Benson, the farm is on average five to seven degrees cooler than metropolitan Tucson. In January and February, fragile young birds are kept warm under the protection of small domes warmed with heat lamps.
“Daily duties on the farm include feeding and checking on the bedding of young birds, composting litter, and maintaining water pumps and reservoirs,” says Michael Muthart of Top Knot Farms. The farm will continue to receive two deliveries of 200 day-old chicks per month, which must be kept at a constant, warm temperature in a brooder until the birds grow feathers. Muthart also processes older birds weekly to bring to market, selling everything from livers and hearts to full birds.
Top Knot will sell fresh—never frozen—broiler chickens, broad-breasted turkeys, and geese at the Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito River Park throughout the winter season.
For those growing indoors, winter weather is not nearly as great a challenge. Indoor aquaponics offers the advantage of a temperature-controlled environment. “We grow any product at any time of the year,” says Chaz Shelton, founder of Merchant’s Garden. “As it gets colder and we don’t need cooling, our utility bills will shrink dramatically.”
The operation’s 10,000-square-foot greenhouse, full of large tanks of tilapia fish and greens, is warmed during the peak of winter. “At colder temperatures, fish don’t eat as much,” says Shelton. “They don’t produce as much waste to feed plants.” The high heat capacity of water means it is able to maintain a stable temperature better than air. Therefore, the cost of heating the water tanks falls below that of maintaining a growing room.
Within 35 days, seeds are sprouted under artificial light and grown to full size in a deep-water system. This system involves plant roots suspended over nutrient-rich, oxygenated water, fed by fish waste. “We’ll have our hands full with turning over lots of leafy greens,” says Shelton. “We’ll be producing 800 to 1,000 heads of lettuce a day for distribution.”
Merchant’s Garden produces about five varieties of leafy greens and head lettuce, three varieties of basil, and edible flowers, like marigolds. Nearly 5,000 pounds of tilapia will be ready to harvest in mid-February, which Merchant’s Garden will most likely sell directly to restaurants or a distributor.
Merchant’s Garden is also selling to many local restaurants including Ermanos, Agustín Kitchen, and La Cocina. Greens are sold on the shelf in three in-town locations: Rincon Market, Time Market, and the Food Conspiracy Co-op. ✜
Rachel Wehr is a Tucson-based freelance journalist. She spends her free time in nature among cactus and pines.