Beth Ledner was a secretary who dreamed of becoming a farmer. Four years ago, her dreams became reality when she and her husband, Art, started the River Walk Farm, a small patch of land in midtown Tucson that borders the south bank of the Rillito. Beth and Art maintain fruit trees and grow several kinds of vegetables, including 15 distinct types of heritage tomatoes; they practice aquaponics, raise 50 chickens, and demonstrate that raising local food and eating healthy is possible for anyone.
How did you get started?
I was a legal secretary for 15 years [and] wound up as the office administrator for the Jane Goodall Institute. Jane opened my eyes and working there changed my thinking about animals and the Earth. I wanted to eat healthy and grow my own food and just started planting tomatoes. [Now] we have organically grown vegetables, fruits, and herbs. We also raise chickens and have Java hens and a couple of Java roosters. Originally, we farmed on our neighbor’s vacant two-acre lot. Then he got arrested for money laundering and the federal government confiscated his property. The government gave us 30 days to move. We had to move everything from two acres back to the one-quarter lot surrounding our home—which we did.
How did you manage?
We did it by readjusting our thinking. Instead of growing in big, long rows, we planted everything by the square foot. I learned about square-foot gardening by watching Mel Bartholomew on television. It is called intensive microgardening. So on a one-quarter acre of land, we grow cucumbers, peppers, squash, zucchini, watermelon, herbs, oranges, lemons, grapes, and apples. We also plant using rows of raised trays where we grow tomatoes using aquaponics.
Art, how does aquaponics work in the desert?
Actually, we use about 80 percent less water than traditional ground farming. Aquaponics uses the same water over and over again. The fish live in storage tanks and their waste fertilizes the water, which is then pumped and piped into the plant trays. The plant roots obtain nutrients from the fertilized water and that water is recycled back into the fish storage tanks and the cycle repeats. The only water lost is through evaporation. The fish we use are tilapia, koi, and goldfish. We feed the fish, and the fish fertilize our plants. After about five months, we eat the fish—they taste great baked or cooked on the grill.
Beth, how do you manage to grow your plants organically?
One method is called companion planting. For example, we’ll surround our tomato plants with basil, which will pull bugs away from the tomato plants preventing aphids and hookworms. Garlic will keep rabbits and squirrels away because they don’t like the smell. To prevent ground squirrels, moles, and mice, we spray peppermint oil mixed with water and a little dish soap on some of our plants and herbs. Finally, we sacrifice select plants that I call “trap plants.” Look at that tomato plant with the half-eaten tomato still on the vine. The bugs or rodents will concentrate on finishing that tomato off and hopefully leave the others alone. It’s an integrated pest management system; we have learned so much through trial and error and talking to and networking with other gardeners.
Who eats all the food you produce?
Our fruits, vegetables, and herbs are eaten by family members, neighbors, friends, and customers who come to buy eggs. There is a new backyard growers market at the library called Tuesdays on Pennington. We’re going to be making our first foray into a market situation with our produce, eggs, and home baked goods. So we’ll see how that goes.
What’s it like living with 50 chickens?
Well, the roosters start crowing and the chickens wake up at 4 a.m., but I ignore them and don’t get out of bed until 7 a.m. We’re allowed to have roosters unlike most of the City of Tucson. Most people have no idea about this area; we’re sort of hidden away, backed up against the Rillito wash and surrounded by horse stables. And we do get predators. Once, in the middle of the day, I scared off a bobcat that had three dead chickens lined up in a row. I also caught a red fox in our coop and had to let him out. Twenty of our birds are Java chickens, which are the second oldest American breed of chicken. They nearly went extinct but were brought back starting about 15 years ago, although they are still on the critically endangered list. Java chickens are excellent egg layers, very calm birds and very friendly—even the roosters. They also handle summer heat well.
What have you learned?
Patience. A lot of patience. We’ve had our setbacks, but I love doing this. I started because I wanted to be able to afford to eat healthy and share with others. When my granddaughter visits, she would rather eat one of my homemade pickles than a candy bar. ✜
Steve Renzi is a local freelance writer who has written about subjects ranging from raising chickens to dropping the atomic bomb.