Early fall in Baja Arizona offers a sneak peek into cooler nights and relief from overwhelming summer heat. Nevertheless, temperatures remain high and days continue to be long, offering between 11 and 12 hours of daylight through the end of October. For farmers, these months are focused on extending the season of summer crops, harvesting, and preparing for the winter ahead.
For Jeremy Markley of Markley Farms in Sunsites, east of the Dragoon Mountains, these months bring a bounty of tomatoes to be harvested from the greenhouse. “September and October are really busy because we still have a lot of hours of sunlight,” says Markley. For Markley, hours of sunlight translate to tomato production. “We will be harvesting on a daily basis,” he says.
Markley also pollinates every day by hand. Typically, tomatoes grown in the field are wind-pollinated. But with little wind movement within a greenhouse, farmers have the choice of mechanically pollinating the flowers or maintaining a beehive within the greenhouse. Markley uses a homemade pollinator made with a weight and a counterbalance attached to a stick that vibrates and scatters the pollen. This is a careful process. “You don’t touch the flowers themselves or else the tomatoes would get scarred,” says Markley. “You touch the calyx and watch the pollen move.” The calyx includes the green sepals that surround the stem.
Other farm duties include minor grafting of tomato plants. At Markley Farms, each tomato plant is grafted onto another plant in order to increase its height. “Every couple of months we will graft again,” says Markley. “We will do it by September and October to fill up the greenhouse for the winter.”
Markley Farms grows 20 tomato varieties, including cherry tomatoes, big red tomatoes, and a blend of heirloom varieties. Markley’s personal favorites are the Steak Sandwich, a classic big red tomato, and Japanese black trifele, a dark rich-flavored tomato. Other popular varieties include Lorenzo, an acid-free variety; Tie-Dye (hybrid); Sun Gold; and Black Cherry. All 20 varieties are sold at the Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park and the Rincon Valley Farmers’ Market.
These months are not only for continuing production of warm weather crops, but preparing for and planting winter crops as well. “During September through April and May, we can grow a phenomenal amount of different kinds of produce because the temperatures are milder,” says Eunice Park, co-owner of Larry’s Veggies in Marana. “We consider that our summer,” says Park, comparing Baja Arizona’s mild fall, winter, and spring to the summer growing season in other parts of the country.
“In September and October, we will be finishing off summer crops and rounding off the end of the season,” says Park. Summer crops at market will include canary melons, potatoes, onions, garlic, okra, summer squash, and eggplant. Larry’s Veggies also hopes to be harvesting jalapeños, assuming the plants make it through monsoon season. “We grow outdoors so it’s susceptible to whatever Mother Nature decides that she wants to bring to us,” says Park.
“We will be working diligently on fall and winter crops,” says Park. Fall and winter crops at the farm include greens like kale, spinach, lettuce, and chard as well as cauliflower and beets. Fall also marks the beginning season of hard squashes like butternut and spaghetti squash. Larry’s Veggies sells at the Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park, Green Valley, Trail Dust Town, and Oro Valley.
For young crops bolstered by monsoon rains, September and October bring strong plants with much to harvest. “We will most likely have our squash coming up and our 60-day white corn ready to harvest,” says Raymond Antone, food production assistant at San Xavier Co-op Farm in Tucson. The farm grows a variety of traditional O’odham crops including yellow-fleshed melons, squash, and a few varieties of both corn and beans.
“We should have some good-sized ha:l by September and October,” says Antone. H:al (pronounced, roughly, haahr) is a traditional Tohono O’odham squash harvested soft-skinned in summer, hard-shelled in fall for winter storage. These giant, well-loved squash have a mild, sweet flavor. The squash is typically prepared by steaming or boiling and is delicious in both sweet and savory dishes. “You can eat the seeds too,” says Antone. “It’s very versatile.”
Chile plants on the farm will produce through September and October. San Xavier will also be harvesting white tepary, red tepary beans, and cowpeas by late October. Fall fruits are also a jewel to keep an eye out for in early fall. “By October, we will have lots of pomegranates, both white and red,” says Antone. Crops from the San Xavier Co-op Farm are at sold at the farm store just south of Tucson and at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market at Mercado San Agustín on Thursdays.
Rachel Wehr is a Tucson-based freelance journalist. She spends her free time in nature among cactus and pines.