Joe Marlow pinches off the end of one of his tomato vines and comments about how beautiful it is. He isn’t holding a tomato. A fat, happy tomato hornworm, longer than his
thumb and just as thick, is clinging to the stem. He explains that it’s best to pick off the devastating caterpillars one-by-one, by hand.
“I’m an economist, so one of the things I think about is externalities,” says Marlow, the owner of the off-the-grid SouthWinds Farm outside of Benson. By day, Marlow is a senior economist at the Sonoran Institute. Externalities are “costs and benefits as a result of economic activities that accrue to people who are not party to a decision to engage in those activities,” he explains. In the case of a negative externality like pollution, for example, “someplace someone’s bearing the cost for that.”
This clearly informs how he farms. “They’re pretty cute … really cute, in fact,” he says, admitting his fondness for the round-tailed ground squirrel, another of the creatures that threaten the Corno di Toro peppers, I’Itoi onions, Royal Burgundy beans, and other crops at SouthWinds, a farm run sustainably, organically, and almost entirely on solar energy. For the round-tailed ground squirrels, this means that when they manage to get inside the garden fence, Marlow traps and “deports” them. Thanks to a 3-foot-deep, 15-inch-wide moat of coarse gravel that he built around the fence to prevent the ground squirrels from digging underneath it, this has only happened three times in the three years since he bought the property.
Marlow calls himself a “super data geek.” His professional background is incredibly varied and includes working as a mechanic and soil scientist. Before starting SouthWinds, he ran a co-op
garden, what he calls a “trial run” for becoming a farmer. “It’s one thing to grow food in your garden; it’s another thing to farm at scale,” he says. He made everyone in the co-op keep data and calculate the market value of what they grew. The results were encouraging.
But then came 2011, “one of those sort of hellish years,” recalls Marlow. After undergoing treatment for melanoma, he reorganized his priorities and bought the eight acres that would become SouthWinds Farm in October 2012. “When I got it, it was just desert,” says Marlow. He made smudge sticks from the creosote that had to be cleared in order to put in his beds.
Production ramped up slowly. He started out delivering to attorneys’ offices in Tucson, connecting with “people who knew people who wanted vegetables.” Likewise, the CSA program started with 20 people, then 30, and now he’s shooting for 50 in the third season. Marlow is conscious of the compromise that can accompany growth. “I think there’s something that happens when you scale things up,” he says. He has about a half acre of his eight acres under cultivation and he’d like to double that.
Marlow holds high standards for himself in terms of sustainability, which is evident when he says things like, “I kind of hate running the generator,” or, “We use a lot of plastic on this farm.” He half-apologizes for importing organic goat manure from Fiore di Capra Dairy and Creamery, which is six miles down the road. His goal is to have “as few inputs from off the farm as possible.” He’d like to never have to run the generator, which is used primarily to supplement the power used by the window AC unit that Marlow tweaked to make a walk-in cooler, where he often finds the interns and WOOFers (farm volunteers) hiding out during the hotter months.
At its simplest, he sees sustainability as an exercise in behavioral change and he’s incrediblyoptimistic about it. “All you have to do is change the way you do things and amazing things happen,” says Marlow. “Humans are good at changing their behavior.”
He credits the six years he taught at the Tohono O’odham Community College, in Sells, with his own significant change in outlook. “I learned a completely different epistemology” working with the tribe, says Marlow. He describes the school as existing in “the hyphen between tribal and college,” where he learned a healthy skepticism of logic—“to think about everything before you, do the Descartes on it”—and that “maybe everything isn’t nailed down by science.” He says his time at the college impacts his farming, albeit in a completely ineffable way. “I don’t know how it translates, but it’s there.”
True to his economist roots, he talks about working with local restaurants in the context of diversification of his income portfolio. The Coronet was his first restaurant account, and he speaks highly of The Coronet’s head chef, Erika Bostick-Esham, saying, “She knows food.”
Bostick-Esham has a number of dishes on the menu that highlight SouthWinds produce. “They’re just perfect,” she says of Marlow’s poblanos. “They have an authentic heat to them that you can’t really find when you get them at the grocery store.” She has used them in The Coronet’s rajas and a special chiles en nogada. “He’s just super easy to work with because he loves food,” she says. “We get to geek out over the melons that he’s growing.” Bostick-Esham has used SouthWinds’ butterscotch melon along with his muskmelons to make what she describes as “a beautiful melon
“I get face time with Farmer Joe every week. I don’t think a lot of people can say that about their produce,” she says. She describes her relationship with Marlow as very responsive. “He’s so communicative and so involved with what we’re doing in terms of seasonal ingredients and seasonal produce.” He developed a salad blend especially for The Coronet that utilizes greens that he’s able to grow year-round, even in the height of summer’s heat.
“I like these cycles,” he says of the “constant churning” of planting greens and harvesting peppers that comes with farming organically in a fairly small area. In contrast, he appreciates the pomegranates, jujubes, and figs for their relative self-sufficiency. He expects that his fruit trees will begin producing within the next few years. He’s sure that “the neighbors think I’m crazy for watering the mesquites,” which he plans to encourage as a natural fence along his property line so they don’t see him out at night harvesting by headlamp.
Since starting SouthWinds, he’s worked preposterously long hours, splitting his time between the farm and Tucson in order to maintain his job at the Sonoran Institute. That’s all about the change. “I just can’t do it ad hoc anymore,” says Marlow, who is currently in the process of transitioning out of his day job to devote himself to the farm full time. Doing things—irrigation, harvesting, pest control—by hand means “you have to pay more attention,” says Marlow. “So far, it’s worth it.”
“My most favorite thing is when I harvest some exquisite vegetable that I’ve grown for the first time,” says Marlow. “There’s all that blue sky out there when you’re thinking about potential.” His enduring wonder at the act of putting seeds in the ground and getting “really cool turnips” is palpable. “It grew,” he states simply. “That’s a really amazing thing.” ✜
Autumn Giles is a freelance writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Modern Farmer and Punch. Her first book, Beyond Canning: New Techniques, Ingredients, and Flavors to Preserve, Pickle, and Ferment Like Never Before, will be out in February 2016.