To get to walking j farm, nestled in the Santa Cruz River valley watershed near Amado, Arizona, you have to navigate pleasingly tight corners and slow to avoid sauntering peacocks. Past a sign advertising Walking J’s Saturday farm stand, up a shady, dusty driveway; you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the garden, comprised of rows of 100-foot beds and spanning roughly an acre and a third. Young heirloom tomatoes, winter squash, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, turnips, kale, mizuna, beets, garlic, and onions in various stages of development wave in the breeze.
Walking J Farm is a polyculture farm, where many types of plants and animals live and grow in close proximity to one another. Jim McManus and his wife Tina Bartsch sell organic produce, grass-fed beef and pork, and eggs from pasture-raised chickens at three Tucson farmers markets, one in Nogales, and at Tucson’s Food Conspiracy Co-op and Renee’s Organic Oven on Tanque Verde Road. McManus and Bartsch also run a CSA that delivers fresh produce and meat weekly—enough work to require the help of as many as four interns at a time.
A large part of that work is simply getting the word out to consumers. Though demand is growing, McManus says organic, farm-direct food is still a “niche” market. In a region where towns are separated by such long miles, fostering community through face to face interactions with customers helps spread the word and keep the business afloat.
While he calls marketing “a second business,” Jim’s first business is growing food, and a sustainable farm’s success depends in no small part on the quality of its soil. “I really focus on cycling our nutrients and not bringing in too much outside additive,” McManus says. To ensure nutrient-rich soil, he lets litter—dead plant matter—return to the dirt and contribute to biomass. Limiting tillage allows the soil to “build from the top down”—bugs feed on plant matter, bigger bugs feed on smaller bugs and excrete waste, and so on.
“I love seeing the cycles in the seasons, and I love working on this work in progress.”
And, in an arid region like southern Arizona, good soil means good water retention. “If your soil’s got good aggregation and effective and efficient organic matter, the water infiltrates immediately and it’s held there,” Jim says. The garden’s seeming entropy is mostly deliberate: Wildflowers serve as buffers between beds, attracting beneficial insects. Sunflowers will provide shade for vegetables, and radishes are planted alongside squash to deter a pest called the squash borer.
Animals at Walking J play an important role in the farm’s polyculture, too. They forage, consume grass, and contribute manure. “Pigs do well foraging—you can see the difference between this field”—where several Duroc pigs lay submerged in soupy puddles—“and that one, which looks like a lunar landscape,” McManus says.
The problem, of course, is cost. He only feeds his animals organic and non-GMO feed, which is expensive. While Jim’s loyal customers understand this, some of those newer to organic and free range foods don’t. This doesn’t seem to bother McManus. Indeed, so many customers wanted Walking J’s heritage turkeys last Thanksgiving that Jim and Tina had to put an automated “we’re still sold out” message on their answering machine. “Demand is huge,” McManus says.
McManus stays busy. When his two kids arrive home from school, he’s in the midst of inspecting a cat’s injured paw, shaking rocks out of a small sock, and keeping an eye on Bryan, Spotty, and Headbutt, three young goats. McManus says that the thing he loves most about farming is being outside. “I love seeing the cycles in the seasons, and I love working on this work in progress—implementing great management practices that build soil health and vitality and grow really good food.”
Cycles—of nutrients, of water—are fundamental to McManus’ farming philosophy. “I think it’s the best place to give my kids a really grounded foundation of what makes the world turn and what’s important,” McManus says. “Wherever they go, no matter what they’re doing, they understand that meat comes from animals that have lives that you kill, that you can treat them good or bad.” ✜
Jessica Langan-Peck teaches and writes in Tucson, where she is currently attempting her first desert garden.