When Byron Smith decided to leave northern British Columbia to grow vegetables elsewhere, his checklist for a new farmstead had three items: It had to have year-round sun; the winters had to be cold, and the nights cool; and, it had to be way out in the country—having grown up in a remote part of western Canada, Smith wanted a similar experience for his children.
One spot met all three criteria: A swath of land on a desert plain about 30 miles south of Willcox, about 4,500 feet above sea level.
In the late 90s, Smith and his wife, Janice, moved to Willcox and created what is now known as Sunizona Family Farms. It’s considered to be a small operation, but it has a big reach.
Each week, the 20-acre farm ships 700 to 800 boxes of vegetables—and even fruit pies and whole grain breads—to “farm box” subscribers across Arizona. In addition, Sunizona Family Farms sells produce directly to stores such as Whole Foods.
Their work, Janice said, is governed by one belief: “Food is the essence of life. If we don’t have food, what are we going to do as a people?”
Granted, there’s food, and then there’s food.
The Smiths endeavor to produce the best produce they can without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, thus, they said, making it the healthiest kind of food. Indeed, they like to joke that “Even their vegetables are vegetarian.”
To achieve that, they start with the soil, composting their own for the greenhouses and outside growing areas. That soil comes from composted tomato plant leaves and other prunings that otherwise would be cast off.
“When you make your own potting soil, you have better consistency,” Janice said. “It’s not just about sustainability,” Byron said. “It’s not just about providing food. I want to go a step beyond that. It’s about the quality of life.”
A biomass boiler supplies hot water to keep the hothouses that way. Pecan hulls from orchards near Green Valley fuel the boiler. The resulting ash, instead of getting tossed, is used as a soil amendment.
“When we first decided to do this, we didn’t think, ‘Hey, we’ve got all this wonderful ash we can use,’” Janice said. But every day of the farm’s operation, she said, has been an exercise in efficiency.
Efficiency has its limits, however. Growing in a hothouse takes energy. The Smiths grow several varieties of vegetables to meet customer demand. The farm uses natural methods to control pests, which Janice says isn’t as efficient as using chemicals. The natural pest control, like growing heirloom varieties, Janice admitted, is a somewhat inefficient way to run a growing operation.
“But it’s a good way for us, because it allows us to have a good variety for people.”
While the Chiricahua Mountains in the distance and the occasional barn dotting the landscape might suggest the typical farming operation, Sunizona Family Farms is anything but. Most farms don’t have hothouses like this, where 10-foot high tomatoes thrive across from beets and turnips comely enough to be included in a still-life painting.
But idyllic as the scene may seem, the word “farming” can almost be a synonym for challenge. It was the same for the Smiths. At one point, vandalism wiped out nearly every crop they grew. In another instance, a then-undiscovered virus yellowed the leaves and curled their young cucumbers, resulting in a total loss for the crop, since all they had planted was cucumbers—which taught them, they said, to take refuge in diversity.
Today, the farm grows 75 kinds of fruit, vegetables, and microgreens. The décor of the main greenhouse includes tomatoes in nearly a rainbow variety of colors. Greens grow daintily in broad trays in another growing house, and green onions reach for the sky outside.
The hothouses allow for year-round production of many vegetables. Once one crop is harvested, fresh seedlings immediately take their place in an orderly, rhythmic fashion—a kind of agrarian symphony.
To conduct that kind of efficient rotation takes effort.
“People think of a farmer as wearing bib overalls,” Janice said. “But these days, farmers spend a lot of time on Excel spreadsheets.”
The manifested vision of the Smiths’ growing operation began hundreds of miles to the north. Byron got his start in agriculture when he worked to create a growing program at a high school in a remote section of British Columbia.
As he began to master the art of growing cucumbers, he realized he wanted to relocate to an area that would facilitate that endeavor a bit more than Canada’s stingy growing season—hence the move to Willcox.
After establishing a hothouse in Arizona, the Smiths filled it with cucumber plants. But after a time, the plants’ leaves yellowed, a harbinger of catastrophe. “[The] cucumbers began curling up,” Janice recalled. It would be months before they found out that a heretofore undiscovered virus was the likely killer. By that time, the farm was nearly bankrupt.
If they were going to go down anyway, they would use the opportunity to realize their desire to grow organically—or as they put it, “veganically.” Going veganic, they reasoned, meant minimizing foodborne illness that the Smiths attribute mainly to the animal products commonly used to fertilize crops.
It wasn’t easy.
“Financially, we had hit rock bottom. We couldn’t even afford the gun to put the stickers on the packages,” Janice said. “My daughters and I would spend mornings putting stickers on them.”
With cucumber farming behind them, they turned to tomatoes.
Soon, chefs and stores in Tucson began demanding the Smiths’ tomatoes. Then they asked for heirloom varieties. That led to requests for microgreens. From the ashes of disaster, they grew a revived farm.
The flirt with bankruptcy “was the best thing to ever happen to us,” Janice said. “It opened a whole new world to us.”
Part of the farm’s new efforts at diversity is a bakery, which produces fresh, preservative-free breads and pies for customers. The bread is produced from khorasan, an heirloom wheat, and spelt. The grains are washed, soaked, and sprouted before getting milled and baked.
To realize Sunizona Family Farms’ mission, the Smiths have surrounded themselves with like-minded employees. As the number of small family farms dwindles around the nation, Sunizona Family Farms has attracted people who want to learn about agriculture.
One of them is Timothy Hyde, 19, who grew up near Kalamazoo, Michigan. He came to the farm last year and has worked his way up from the heavy labor work to being a “scout” who inspects the crops for pest and disease threats, then works on how to deal with them. At some point, he said, he wants to return to Michigan and put what he’s learned to use. “If you can grow [crops] in the heat of Arizona, you can grow anywhere,” he said.
Farm work is not easy work. But it’s difficult not to see smiles on the employees’ faces, like when Jesus Garcia, a 13-year veteran of the farm, prunes tomatoes. “It’s a happiness for us. We know we’re doing the best for the families” who buy the farm’s products, he said.
One of his production secrets? He talks to the tomatoes, complimenting them, encouraging them to grow and be bountiful. “People must think I’m crazy,” Garcia said, “but it works.”
The effort shows in the end product, when ruby-hued tomatoes and sweet, tender baby beets go out in the farm boxes. ✜
Sunizona Family Farms. 5655 E. Gaskill Road, Willcox. 520.824.3160. SunizonaFamilyFarms.com
Michael Mello is a writer who has worked for The Orange County Register and The Los Angeles Times. He is currently lost in Arizona.