Sitting under a pistachio tree alive with bees, John and Yongson Rueb narrate the contours of their 20-acre farm just outside Amado. At 3,500 feet, Forever Yong Farm is cooler than much of the surrounding area; they get more monsoon rains than Tucson, and enjoy plentiful water year-round. “We just fell in love with this particular area and this little valley. We call it our little corner of the universe,” says John. The farm is indisputably beautiful, but it’s what’s under the surface that makes the land invaluable—abundant clean water and rich bottomland topsoil.
John and his wife, Yongson, started farming the 20-acre parcel 19 years ago, but their land has been in production for more than 100 years. Forever Yong is a small-scale diversified farm, with six acres in production out of the 20. John and Yong are “urban refugees from Chicago,” says John. They both worked in the corporate world—Yong as an accountant at a law firm and John as a stockbroker at the Chicago Board Options Exchange. “We decided that long term, that wasn’t for us,” says John. “We wanted a simpler lifestyle and we wanted a more wholesome place to raise our boys.” Their sons, Ian and Carlton, were 6 and 8, respectively, when the family relocated.
“It really made our family stronger in retrospect. And closer,” says Yong. “They were really good helpers.” Yong points out that the boys are also “more environmentally sensitive” because of where they were raised. The boys are now 25 and 27 and still help out with big jobs on the farm, but “neither one is bent on being a farmer,” says John.
How did they make it from Chicago to Amado? “For some reason, we got in our minds that we were going to come out West: we were going to do some farming, and we wanted to grow garlic,” says John. Yong is Korean. “Koreans eat tons of garlic,” she explains. They recall visiting a farm for sale in the Pacific Northwest, where they were initially looking at properties. The couple selling the farm told them, “‘Oh, we’re moving to Arizona,’” says John. “Yong and I looked at each other and said, ‘Maybe we’re moving to Arizona too!’”
Even in Baja Arizona, the garlic thing stuck. They’re known for their garlic and—with 20 varieties and around 42,000 plants—it’s the only crop that they grow on a large scale, and the only one that makes its way out of Baja Arizona. About 75 percent of the garlic they grow is sold wholesale to seed companies. “John has been very good at finding the varieties of garlic that grow really well in this region,” says Yong.
The pure air, plentiful water, and rich soil on their property are John and Yong’s top “reasons for doing what we do here. Our second is probably to share our produce with others of all socioeconomic backgrounds,” says John. To that end, Forever Yong began working closely with the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona very early on. “Back in the day when we started, there weren’t too many farmers serving the local food scene. We were recruited by the Food Bank when they decided they wanted to start the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market … We helped them get their market going,” John says. “Since our mission is to get our high quality produce to people of all socioeconomic classes, it’s just natural that we would be attracted to the food bank.” The Thursday Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market remains the only market that John sells at, April through October.
“One of John’s big things is to make it so everyone can afford local quality produce,” says Todd Stadtlander, the produce manager at Food Conspiracy Co-op in Tucson. When Stadtlander started working at the Co-op 11 years ago, the produce department was already buying food from Forever Yong. Each Monday, Stadtlander gets a call from John letting him know what’s good that week; Yong delivers the produce on Wednesdays.
“A farmer has to be tuned in to where they need to go next, what they’ve just learned, what that means for the future in the next season.”
“The really nice thing about John is that he understands the price point thing about produce. His prices are always very fair for—I hope—him and definitely for me,” says Stadtlander. He says that people come in and specifically ask for Forever Yong’s carrots. “Their cantaloupes are amazing,” he says. Stadtlander credits Forever Yong with helping build the Co-op’s reputation for high-quality, consistent local produce. “He has been one of the people who has helped me to establish and continue to have local products on my shelf all the time,” says Stadtlander.
Forever Yong’s success hasn’t come easy. “When we moved here with the two young kids … we didn’t have any option but to succeed,” says Yong. The grasshoppers, however, had another idea. “I mean, hordes,” says John, of the grasshopper plague that they dealt with their first couple of years at the farm. “It was biblical locust swarms. We’re going ‘OK, now what?’ And that’s when we built our first greenhouse, and we said, ‘OK, grasshoppers not allowed.’”
John and Yong built the greenhouse, on their own. Although the 48-by-30-foot greenhouse came as a kit with instructions, John says, “there certainly was a learning curve, but after building two more, we’re getting pretty good at it.”
“When we came to Arizona we were very naïve,” he says. “We thought we were going to come farm in the desert and there weren’t going to be any bugs.” Now, he characterizes the biodiversity on their land as “mind boggling.” It’s important to them to not only work to maintain that biodiversity, but foster its expansion. “We’re trying to be a part of nature instead of, you know, going against it,” says Yong. They participated in a wildlife habitat improvement program; put in a pond to attract wildlife; planted “shelter belts,” rows of pine trees that help reduce wind and provide habitat; built brush piles for quail, and put in bat houses. “We have a pet herd of deer that literally lives here all winter,” says John, proud.
“We came here from the Midwest. So we got here, and the first thing we did was plant sweet corn and green beans,” says John, with a laugh. They tried growing pretty much everything. “We had a lot of energy and not a lot of experience. Now we’re kind of flip-flopped on that,” says John. Experience allows them to expend less energy on questions like where, when, and how to plant collards, for example, as well as where to sell them and how much to sell them for. “As we gained experience, we refined our techniques and found out what works better … well, what crops, number one, we can grow well… and number two, we have a market for,” says John.
Summer is Forever Yong’s high season. Kincho melons, a customer favorite that John compares to a sweet cucumber, are typically in the market by July, along with canary melons, crenshaw melons, cantaloupes, and watermelons. Their Burmese okra, a seed they’ve been saving for 17 years, has been a surprise favorite with market customers because, they say, it’s a lot less slimy and stays tender, even as it gets larger. John and Yong typically hire one paid employee during the summer to keep up with their workload and rely on volunteers from World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) in the cooler months.
After 19 years, “I always say, don’t make big mistakes,” says John. “You can make small mistakes, but don’t make big mistakes.” Big mistakes have the potential to jeopardize the financial viability of the farm. I ask him to tell me about one of his small mistakes. “O.K. I have a real good one,” he says. “We decided we were going to do a pumpkin patch … I bought the pumpkin seeds and on seed packets it always says how many days it takes to grow it.” Yong starts laughing. “These pumpkins said they were going to take 110 days to grow,” he continues. “So I figured October 15, I want the pumpkin patch ready, right? I counted back 110 days and we planted them then. That’s for New England. In Arizona, it’s like 80 days. So by October 1, all the pumpkins were already rotting in the field.”
He stresses that for someone starting out in farming, a mistake like the rotten pumpkin patch isn’t hard to make. However, he also notes that it was a small mistake. They only planted an acre of pumpkins. “Little mistakes, incremental successes, and building on those incremental successes” are important to a farm’s longevity, says John. “A farmer has to … be tuned in to where they need to go next, what they’ve just learned, what that means for the future in the next season.”
John and Yong agree about the degree to which their success is tied to how much they love what they do. “We love this property and we love what we do, so that love puts us over the top,” says John. “We choose to make it work here.” ✜
Forever Yong Farms. 520.398.8030. ForeverYongFarms.com.
Autumn Giles is a freelance writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Modern Farmer and Punch. She’s the author of Beyond Canning: New Techniques, Ingredients, and Flavors to Preserve, Pickle, and Ferment Like Never Before.