Wearing overalls and resting her young son, Elijah Blue, on her hip, Debbie Weingarten points to the place between two mesquite trees where she married Adam Valdivia almost three years ago. Now, in that same spot, rows of sweet potatoes are planted, the stalks rising green from the ground. “I remember thinking during the ceremony that I wasn’t only marrying Adam, I was marrying this land, this farm.” And this: the life of a farmer.
In September 2008, Weingarten, 30, and Valdivia, 31, started Sleeping Frog Farms with C.J. Marks, 36, and Clay Smith, 28, on a fourth of an acre of land in northwest Tucson. Their first row was fava beans and the drip irrigation left puddles at either end of the row where frogs liked to sleep. Sleeping Frog Farms was born. Since that time, they’ve moved to the Cascabel corridor of the San Pedro River Valley, 60 miles east of Tucson, and have grown to 75 acres, with 14 under production.
Sleeping Frog Farms is just one of many small farms within the past decade started by young people, those raised on farms and those raised far from them, who have decided to commit their time and energy to growing food.
The aging of farmers nationwide mimics aging patterns in the entire population. And with a quarter of current farmers, a half a million in total, slated to retire by 2030, the nation is left with an urgent need for young farmers to move in and take the reins.
The National Young Farmers’ Coalition was formed in 2010 with the mission to “ensure the success of today’s young and beginning farmers and that of future generations of farmers.” The coalition builds networks of farmers, offers practical and technical assistance, and does advocacy work on a state and federal level to encourage policies that support beginning farmers (those who have been farming for ten years or less). According to a 2011 NYFC report, those beginning farmers made up a quarter of all operators in 2007. Of the farmers surveyed, 88 percent of them were 40 or younger.
Barista, hotel desk clerk, carpentry apprentice, human rights advocate, activist, deli worker, waiter, mail sorter, labor union organizer, social worker, farm hand, farm manager, produce manager, small business owner, sports photographer, retail manager. These are just a few of the previous occupations of Sleeping Frog Farms’ owners. Although they share many core values, each took a different path to the farm.
Weingarten was born in rural Alabama but raised in the suburbs of Cincinnati. Growing up, her family ate convenience foods out of cans and boxes, though she always had animals and a garden. At Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, where students work to grow much of the school’s food, she began to learn agricultural skills and developed a love for growing, cooking, and eating “real food.” She moved to Tucson to study the border and began working in social work. When she did family home visits, Weingarten saw the clear connection between access to quality food and quality of life. “I was seeing so many instances of Type 2 Diabetes, chronic diseases, cancer. These parents were forced to make hard choices.” Infuriated at a food system that encouraged cheap fast food and passionate about everyone having access to nutritious whole foods, Weingarten made the choice to go back to farming.
“I remember thinking during the ceremony that I wasn’t only marrying Adam, I was marrying this land, this farm.”
According to the National Young Farmer’s Coalition, 78 percent of farmers surveyed were not raised on a farm. Western Organizer for the NYFC Kate Greenberg suggests many reasons why young people not raised on a farm are attracted to farm life. They get to live where they work, to work outside, to be their own boss, to manage their product and packaging, and to farm in a way that expresses their values for both the community and the environment. She says, “Young farmers say, ‘Let’s put [our values and knowledge] to work and build soil. Let’s feed our communities. Let’s have the freedom to live and work outside, to engage with the natural world and engage in community by the thing we do every day, which is to grow good food.’”
Sleeping Frog Farms’ partner C.J. Marks was raised on a farm in Louisiana to a legacy of farmers. He remembers traveling throughout the state as a child, making deliveries with his father. An agriculture teacher, his father was emphatic about his son learning all aspects of running a farm. As a young man, C.J. began to resent farming—the rigorous labor, the all-encompassing nature of it. He tried other occupations, working in retail management for years, but he says, “the reality of other jobs—being inside all day, disconnected from the earth—set in.” Eight years ago, he returned to his family’s legacy of farming.
Clay Smith grew up in Tucson with a large extended family: his mother, a Rondstadt, is one of 12 children. Food was central to his family, from making tamales together to cultivating backyard gardens. But Smith had no intentions of being a farmer. He attended the University of Arizona for business, planning to go into corporate or nonprofit law. In college, he noticed the absence of the homegrown food and rituals surrounding eating that had always been present in his life. When his father and brother moved to Hawaii to remediate old sugarcane fields, he went periodically to help and learned about beneficial bacteria and the living element of soil. Still in college, he started a small urban soil horticulture and landscaping business, making his own fertilizers and probiotics. Soon, he began creating fertilizer for the original farm in northwest Tucson, where one farmer was his friend from growing up, Adam.
Adam Valdivia started his journey as an eater and “got continually closer and closer to the source of [his] food.” He was born in Illinois surrounded by corn fields but his family moved to Tucson when he was small. He was exposed to farm life at an early age. His parents had sharecropped in exchange for their Illinois home, and his first job, at 13, was detassling corn. At 18, he moved to the Boston area and was living with roommates from Senegal and the West Indies, who were talented cooks and piqued his interest in cooking. Valdivia began doing volunteer work, volunteerships, and worked with farms through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Before he and his co-owners started Sleeping Frog Farms, he managed Agua Linda Farm, where he, Debbie, and C.J. were all working. There, they began plans to start their own farm.
Although the work was hard, especially in those first years, the partners found it invigorating. “Everyone cared and wanted to feed people and contribute to our community,” Marks says. Finally, they were creating their farm from the ground up in the way they wanted to.
While some underestimate the rewards and beauty of farm life, the owners realize that many also idealize what it looks like. “Some people come for a few days and leave. They say, ‘You are insane to do so much work,’” Weingarten says, laughing. “And it is hard, relentless, and exhausting.” But, in Valdivia’s opinion, farming is also one of the most deeply rewarding jobs there is. “I feel pride,” he says. “Many other things in life have left me with emptiness. I was making money but not fully spiritually or emotionally satisfied.”
After years of seven-day workweeks, each of the partners now has two days a week off, but still, at least one of these days involves farm work. They now have help: four hourly employees, three salaried employees, and between five and seven long-term volunteers at any given time. The farm owners are able to pay their bills, pay their employees, and pay themselves a small stipend, but everything else goes back into the farm operation.
Acquisition of land is one of the biggest challenges to young farmers. Between 2000 and 2011, the national per acre farm values doubled, according to the National Young Farmers’ Coalition. Sleeping Frog Farms’ current 75 acres was purchased from the previous land owners, an older couple excited to sell to young people starting the farm they always envisioned on the property. Without the previous landowners carrying the loan, the partners would not have been able to acquire the land.
Still, they are only currently farming a fourth of the land they pay for each month. The partners would like to have 30 acres of vegetable production, but they have to be mindful of how much and how quickly they grow. Each new acre requires more infrastructure: labor, storage, refrigeration, transportation. They’ve talked about ways to maximize their usage—trying to grow more in the summer, for example, or preserving or pickling vegetables. However, that too would require more infrastructure.
And more infrastructure requires more income. Another major obstacle for small farms is access to capital. In the last 50 years, the dominance of large farm enterprises has shifted agriculture and made it harder for small farms to start and thrive. While government subsidies are available, many of them are geared towards large-scale production. These subsidies often have requirements about which crops are grown and how they are grown, requirements that are often incompatible with Sleeping Frog Farms commitment to growing their crops in a sustainable, ecologically friendly way, consistent with their certified naturally grown status.
According to the NYFC, 73 percent of beginning farmers depend on off-farm income. And in 2007, according to the USDA, most beginning farmers lost money from farms. Sleeping Frog Farms hasn’t taken out any bank loans but has benefited from local private loans and from their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which provides funds in advance of a growing season. Kate Greenberg says the NYFC is working with the Farm Service Agency to develop microloan programs. Small loans have been a challenge in the past because of the amount of paperwork required, so these agencies are working to adapt the requirements so that small farms have easier access to microloans.
Clay Smith, who manages the farm finances, says that having a clear budget and plan is vital for a business that has as many variables as farming. “I don’t think a lot of farmers understand margins and costs,” he says. “Many small farms have a lot of heart and a lot of passion but not willingness to be business-minded enough to make it. You can have a great crop but you have to have somewhere for it to go.”
As is a trend for many small farms, none of the owners of Sleeping Frog Farms have health insurance. Farming is backbreaking work, and there is a learning curve for young farmers as they find the safest, most efficient ways to use equipment and their bodies. Over the past years, the Sleeping Frog partners have suffered a broken arm, a hand infection, a forehead split open, smashed fingers, concussions, infected teeth, twisted ankles, and many wrenched backs. Illness and injury are already stressful but they become even harder to face without access to affordable healthcare.
One and a half year old Elijah Blue’s face turns concerned as he points to the stereo. “He does this every time the music stops,” Weingarten says. “He is worried the music has disappeared.” But then his brother Ihler, 7, clicks the button on Pandora and the next Macklemore song comes on. Elijah begins to bend his knees and roll his head, continuing the dance party.
Debbie feels grateful that the kids, both her son Elijah and stepson Ihler, are being raised on a farm. “They have a different connection to life and death and see it as part of a cycle,” Weingarten says. She and Adam are also mindful though that some farm kids end up resenting the life that requires such hard work. So they don’t want to force the kids to work on the farm. “We want them to want it, to choose it,” she says.
Working parents always have to balance the demands of home and work but when these are intertwined, it can be tricky. Sixteen months after he was born, Elijah is finally sleeping through the night. Weingarten initially found it challenging to adapt to her role after becoming a mother. She cannot be in the fields as much and had to reconcile that as a new and temporary situation. “I pull my weight but in a different way than before,” she says.
As we talk, Ihler comes out of his room to ask for Weingarten’s help on a homework problem. Later, the whole farm family watches music videos on YouTube as the boys dance. Many young farmers are recreating the American definition of family, wherein the people they live and work with become as vital and essential as those related by blood. The demands of farm life encourage a kind of intimacy, a willingness to work through difficulties and work out communications that allow relationships to constantly meet challenges and grow from them.
At Sleeping Frog Farms, all four owners have an equal stake, and each partner has a role that builds on their personality and skillset. C.J. is in charge of the greenhouse, where plants get started, and taking care of mechanics of farm machinery. Adam works with production, planting, and fertilizing. He and Clay share the duties of harvest, and Clay also takes care of the accounting and working with restaurant clients. Debbie works with the CSA program that distributes at five locations. She is also the voice of the farm: writing the newsletter, running the website, and handling communications for the farm.
Weingarten says, “We’ve become like family to each other, and we wouldn’t be here without each one of us. The partnership between the four of us is the heart and soul of our operation.”
Weingarten believes that young people are craving work with their hands in a world where we are increasingly devoid of knowledge of tactile skills. They are also becoming aware of a food system where larger corporations are controlling more and more of the food. “It’s political to secure the food system,” she says. “Somewhere along the way it felt like the most political thing I could do.”
Sleeping Frog Farms partners believe everyone should have access to healthy food, that food should be raised in an ecologically sound way, that everyone should have a right to see how their food is grown (they have an open door policy, with notice given, for community members to come see the farm), and that it is their responsibility to provide the community with education and employment.
This fall, Sleeping Frog Farms and Walking J Farms will officially launch FERN, the Farm Education Resource Network. FERN, an extension of the existing volunteer program, is an educational program committed to offering knowledge for those who want to farm in the Southwest. In the program, apprentices commit to six to 12 months of work with a stipend. Besides benefiting the apprentices who learn hands on the skills and knowledge needed for climate farming, Weingarten says FERN is a way of giving back, both supplying skills to future farmers and supplying farmers to the community. FERN was awarded $1,000 from Slow Food Southern Arizona and is seeking additional funding and materials for their pilot year of apprenticeships.
The NYFC continues to work for changes that will allow small farms to thrive. Beyond working for modification of loan policies, some of these include encouraging student loan forgiveness for farmers and offering tax credits for leasing or selling to beginning farmers. In the west, Kate Greenberg says the future of farming depends, too, on how resources—like water—are managed.
Moving forward requires community investment in local foods, but luckily there is no shortage of this in southern Arizona. “What people are always looking for is connection,” Greenberg says. “The desire to connect to community is innate in us. And what this new movement of local agriculture is offering is a very close connection to community, to food, to families, to the land.”
In Sleeping Frog Farms’ big red barn, hundreds of bushels of yellow onions hang from the ceiling, curing. And next door, Dora Martinez, the field manager, bundles carrots for the CSA, placing them in boxes headed to Tucson.
“Community is everything,” says Smith. And community support manifests in a million ways: CSA members who are in law or medicine or business providing advice that the farm would not otherwise be able to afford; community alternative medicine practitioners offering acupuncture and massage for trade; restaurants using their labor and certified kitchens to can and preserve Sleeping Frog vegetables so little goes to waste; marketing professionals assisting with logo design and printing. Sometimes community members cook meals for the owners. Other times they help harvest.
The CSA, now at 150 members, helps the farm’s financial security tremendously. Those CSA members who have been there since the first season have become part of the farm family. “We’ve seen their kids grow up and they’ve seen us starting families and growing as a business,” Weingarten says. “And we’ve seen each other through life changes. We are invested in each other.”
This fall, Sleeping Frogs Farm will grow okra, eggplant, tomatoes, basil, peppers, winter squash, summer squash, sage, thyme, turnips, radishes, kale, carrots, collards, beets, melons, cilantro, chard, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and sprouts. Crops will be planted, cultivated, picked, packaged and sent out into the community where they will be turned into meals.
Valdivia says, “Some of the hardest days we’ve had, it’s the community support that’s kept us going. So many people have said, ‘If things ever get bad, let us know.’ I think people want to see the farm succeed.” ✜
Planning with friends, finding land, finding ways to pay for land · Borrowing four thousand dollars from a parent · Working full-time jobs and odd jobs for money, putting every bit of money earned—20 dollars here, three dollars there—back into farming · Ordering seeds · Digging your hands in the earth, planting seeds, building soil · Building irrigation systems · Checking the weather four times a day · Harvesting · Reaching out and feeling the support of local restaurants and the community · Working seven-day work weeks from five a.m. until midnight with no days off and no pay · Staying up until four in the morning to prepare harvested food for the farmers’ market, engaging in conversation with people at the market · Laughing with delirium from lack of sleep and the sweetness of community · Finding out you need to move from the land you started on and remembering a farm sale video you saw on YouTube · Contacting these aging ostrich farm owners who are encouraged by your plans (the ones they always dreamed of doing themselves) · Developing a plan where the previous owners carry the loan from the bank and you pay to purchase the land each month · Moving to the new land and starting over again · Transporting plants but leaving the soil you worked on for two years · Building plants in greenhouses · Experimenting with changes to the soil · Bringing in a soil scientist · Starting a row · And then another · And then one more · Growing from one acre to four to 14 · Picking food · Feeding chickens · Breeding goats · Fixing tractors · Teaching volunteers · Hiring employees · Guiding tours · Starting relationships · Starting a family · Eating meals together with food you planted and harvested · Looking out on the fields you created and continue to create.
For more information:
Sleeping Frog Farm
4510 N Cascabel Rd., Benson, AZ.
Find their produce at the Food Conspiracy Co-op in Tucson, at farmers’ markets, in restaurants around town, or join their CSA program.
Lisa O’Neill originally hails from New Orleans but has made her second home in the desert, where she writes and teaches writing. Her favorite food to make is lemon icebox pie.