Mid-summer in Baja Arizona is the season of abundant tomatoes and chiles, sky-high temperatures, and the ever-anticipated monsoon storm. While these two months can be some of the hottest, they certainly are not the driest. Farmers face challenges in the area of balance: balancing sunlight, heat, and moisture.
Shade cloth is a must for vegetable farmers in July and August. Some crops like chiles and zucchinis will still produce fruit without it, while others like tomatoes demand sun protection. “Tomato plant pollen is not viable above 105 to 110 degrees,” says Chris Lowen, the farm operations coordinator of Las Milpitas de Cottonwood Community Farm. says Lowen. When temperatures are the hottest of the year in June, flowers unable to be pollinated will fall to the ground and fail to produce fruit. Production will pick back up in August when flowers are successfully producing ripe fruit pollinated in July’s cooler temperatures.
Heat also diminishes gardeners’ ability to work outside midday. “We need to be on our communication game,” says Lowen, noting that gardeners miss harvesting ripe zucchini, chiles, and tomatoes due to overwhelming heat. In a matter of a day in the hot sun, a tomato can turn from perfectly ripe to nearly rotting.
Late summer is a time of preparation for the rapidly approaching September planting season. In August, Lowen and the Las Milpitas staff will be ordering seeds and planning for fall crops. August also brings the ripening of fruits such as figs, pomegranates, quince, and apples. Many of the fruit trees at Las Milpitas are watered by way of 1,200-gallon cisterns, which will be filled with a series of large monsoon storms. Excess produce from farmers at Las Milpitas is sold at the Community Food Bank’s consignment table at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market on Thursdays.
For Freddie Terry of Terry’s Apiaries, heat is essential to summer production. “The honey doesn’t flow well without the heat,” says Terry, who manages 12 sites of bee colonies in Oracle. Throughout July and August, each bee colony—a group of 20,000 to 80,000 worker bees, drones and one single queen—will be producing honey, beeswax, and royal jelly from mainly mesquite nectar. Each of Terry’s colonies will produce about 100 pounds of honey per year.
“If the weather is right in July and August, I can really make a lot of honey,” says Terry. If there are substantial monsoon rains, the mesquite will bloom both in spring and again in August or September. Summer wildflowers, which contain more nectar than pollen, will also be blooming throughout the season. Bees will utilize nectar as an energy source, which will be converted to honey, and pollen as a protein source, which will be converted mainly into beeswax.
Because one type of flower usually dominates during a specific season, the flavor profile of the honey produced at any given time reflects that of the nectar and pollen collected during a species’ bloom season. “I really try to take off my honey in a hurry so that it doesn’t get mixed,” says Terry.
One of the most demanding duties in July and August include maintaining a constant water supply for the bees. Terry hauls water to large barrels placed near each colony, which will be collected by bees leaving the hive and utilized to quench thirst and keep bee box cool. “I use a 325-gallon tank,” says Terry. “That’s about 3,000 pounds of water.” Other farm duties include raising queens and harvesting honey. Terry’s Apiaries sells skin cream, candles, honey and comb on Sundays at the Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park.
Mid-summer and monsoon season are a busy time for most farmers. The season requires paying close attention to the amount and frequency of precipitation in order to balance soil moisture during heavy rains and dry spells. “We’re monitoring everything, harvesting, and planning for the next season,” says Anne Loftfield of High Energy Agriculture in Marana.
In flatter, wider floodplains of Southern Arizona, high winds during monsoon season pose a threat to crop fields. “With more wind, we have to water more because it dries out the land,” says Loftfield. “We’ve learned to assess it and do daily adjustments [of irrigation], even without monsoons.”
“When monsoons arrive, too much water can be a problem as well,” says Loftfield. Floods can damage plants and leave them vulnerable to other issues, such as blossom-end rot in tomatoes. Blossom-end rot is caused by a calcium imbalance in the plant, often explained by inconsistent water availability in the soil. Preventing this requires ensuring that soil is not drying out for long periods of time before flooding throughout the summer.
In July and August, High Energy Agriculture will be harvesting summer squashes, like pattypan and varieties of zucchini, melons, many varieties of tomatoes, and bell peppers. High Energy Agriculture will be selling produce throughout the summer on Thursdays at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market, Sundays at the Heirloom Farmers’ Markets at Rillito Park, and Saturdays at Steam Pump Ranch.
Rachel Wehr is a Tucson-based freelance journalist. She spends her free time in nature among cactus and pines.