Growing Arevalos

Aaron Cardona carries on the legacy, and future, of his family’s farm near Double Adobe.

March 11, 2017

Issue 23: March/April 2017Meet Your Farmer

It’s a pleasant January afternoon at Arevalos Farm, and two generations of the Arevalos family are gathered around a picnic table sorting beans.

At one end sits the older generation, Joan Cardona and her brother, Don Arevalos. She pours a pile of beans onto the table. He grabs a few handfuls and begins the tedious task of sorting them by hand.

To the untrained eye, there appears to be nothing wrong with these beans. But as Don picks through the mound in front of him, he finds tiny pieces of broken shells, stems, and other chaff. A few minutes later, Don’s chosen beans are set aside to be bagged and sold at farmers’ markets and co-ops. The small pile of rejects is discarded.

At the other end of the table sits the younger generation, Joan’s son, Aaron Cardona, and his wife, Marla. They are sifting through a pile of their own. Aaron explains that his customers want perfectly clean beans. If sorting them by hand is what it takes to make the customer happy, that’s what the family does.

Sorting beans is about as interesting as it sounds, so the conversation meanders to the story of how a farming family from Southern California wound up in the middle of Arizona, and how a young man with no interest in farming traveled abroad only to rediscover his roots.

Aaron Cardona (left) is the third generation to run the family farm near Double Adobe. His mother, Joan Cardona (middle), and father, Art Cardona, still pitch in around the farm.

Arevalos Farm is in the southern end of the Sulphur Springs Valley, a broad, rolling plain of farmland and ranches, grasses and desert scrub, spread between Southeast Arizona’s famed Sky Island mountains. Water plays a huge role in shaping the landscape. An average of 13 inches of rain falls annually, mostly during the monsoon season from July through September. When the rainwater comes rushing down from the mountains, it carries with it dirt that spreads across the valley in broad alluvial fans.

The patriarch of the family, Gilbert Arevalos—Don and Joan’s father—arrived here in 1954 to farm red chile peppers. Demand for red chiles was high, the soil was good, and a nearby natural gas pipeline would provide the family with all the fuel they’d need to dehydrate the peppers.

It was a smart move. Arevalos Farm chiles earned a loyal following across Baja Arizona. People drove hundreds of miles to pick their own, and the family’s peppers became a fixture on menus in Tucson.

“You could list every single Mexican restaurant that’s been there for at least 40 years,” says Aaron. “Take El Charro. If we go into that place with my uncle, they’ll lose their mind because we had such a long relationship.”

But the farm began to decline in the mid-‘80s. Rising costs for basics like electricity made it harder for the family to compete with commodity growers. Gilbert’s sons, Don and Ronnie, moved elsewhere to find employment. When Gilbert died, his daughter, Joan, and her husband kept the land in the family, but only because they had full-time jobs off the farm. Their hope was that one day, one of their children would return and become the third generation of Arevalos farmers.

Aaron Cardona loved growing up on the farm. Playing in the fields with his siblings and cousins, building forts out of chile boxes, racing worms they picked off ears of corn. It was a great place to be a kid.

But like many of his generation, he had no interest in farming.

“I remember me and my cousin Chris picking green beans all day and Grandpa paid us a dollar,” says Aaron. “We were like, ‘Oh my God, we worked all day and we got a dollar. This is ridiculous.’ ”

After high school, Aaron went to New Mexico State in Las Cruces for history and Latin American studies. From there he headed north to the School for International Training in Vermont for a masters in international education. As part of his studies, Aaron traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, where he assisted a local historian and cultural anthropologist.

Living among the Zapotec people, Aaron saw a reflection of the community he left behind. The elders were immersed in their language and traditions. The middle generation could understand Zapotec only when it was spoken to them. The youngsters wanted to be like Americans. They reminded him of a young man in Arizona who couldn’t wait to leave the farm.

“It caused me to examine myself,” says Aaron. “I started appreciating how I was raised here. I wanted to come back and learn those values myself, like farming and ranching.”

In 2010, Aaron returned to his roots.

Having land is the start of problems,” jokes Aaron as he walks down rows of produce. This time of year he harvests mesclun and kale. The mesclun, a mix of lettuce, arugula, and mustards, has a sharp bite of horseradish. It tastes nothing like what you’d buy in the supermarket. The stem of the Russian kale is surprisingly fresh and sweet. “No one thinks to eat the stem,” he says, “but I think it’s the best part.”

Aaron Cardona peels groundcover off a row of spinach and winter greens. Cardona says he’s interested in pursuing innovative farming methods.

In the next field, tall stalks of Mexican June corn tower overhead. It’s the same heritage variety his grandfather grew. It’s less sugary but more flavorful than sweet corn, and fans swear it makes the best tamales and tortillas. With the help of Native Seeds/SEARCH, Aaron grows a yellow meated variety of watermelon that originated on the Tohono O’odham reservation.

As for the beans the family sorts so carefully? It’s a variety called Frijol Mechudo, a hybrid Aaron developed on the farm for a creamier flavor and texture than regular pinto beans. Mechudo is Spanish for shaggy, a nickname the Zapotec children gave him because of the long hair and immense beard he wore then. The lessons of Oaxaca are never far from his thoughts.

Aaron is optimistic, but realistic about the future of Arevalos Farm. Some customers still balk at the price of his organic harvest. So he focuses on growing specialty crops and foods with flavor. He tries to show people how much better food tastes when it’s made with quality ingredients. When they make the connection, all the extra time, money, and effort Aaron puts into his farm take on a new meaning.

Mother-son dream team: Joan drives while Aaron shovels.

“I go to the farmers’ market and someone comes back and tells me that’s the best watermelon I’ve ever tasted in my life,” he says. “That chile is amazing. These are the best tamales I’ve ever eaten. They remind me of my grandma.”

Along with rebuilding a farm, Aaron wants to rebuild his community. He sees a lot of similarities between here and Oaxaca. He worries about family farming dying along with an aging population, and a new generation that’s eager to leave it all behind and move to the city.

So he regularly invites school children to tour the farm, to see how the pumpkins, peppers, beans, corn, and produce are grown. A fall harvest and pumpkin picking festival drew in more than 250 people. He hopes that by reaching kids at an age when they think farming is cool, maybe some will stay and become farmers, too.

“It’s all these old timers coming up to me, almost crying, saying, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ It’s those little things that keep you going,” he says. ✜

Dennis Newman is a freelance writer from Tucson who has written extensively about farming and how crops become food and beverages.

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