Farmyard: Vegetable Gardening—in the Desert!
by Bruce E. Boyers
If you’ve ever been to Phoenix, Arizona, you know that the word desert definitely applies. The soil is sandy, rocky and very dry, and the native flora is only that which can survive the harsh heat and low rainfall. Throughout the summer the daytime temperature is regularly above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and can get as high as 120°F, and the average rainfall is 8 inches per year. Despite these extreme conditions, a local company called Farmyard has created a craze for home vegetable gardening throughout the greater Phoenix area and beyond.
“Our native desert soils are really alkaline, and many of the native trees here, like palo verde, mesquite and palo brea, have very little organic matter that they drop,” Rebecca Kidwell, co-founder of Farmyard, told Organic Connections. “They drop some blossoms and very small leaves, which is quite different than in the Midwest or back East, where there are huge oak trees, sycamores and elm trees that drop a ton of organic matter into the soil over hundreds and hundreds of years. We don’t have that here in the desert.
“A lot of people come here from the East or the Midwest and they’re used to throwing seeds in the soil and having fantastic tomatoes a few months later. So learning how to work with the soils, changing the pH and increasing the organic material content in the soil, is huge.”
Because the native soil is not at all crop friendly, this is the first issue that Farmyard addresses. “Transforming the native soil usually takes a year or two to achieve optimal results,” Rebecca said. “That is why we’re such big proponents of doing raised-bed gardening here, so people have a little bit more instant success. The soil in the raised beds is locally made compost; then we have a proprietary blend of about 15 different soil amendments that go into it that make it perfect for vegetables.”
The Farmyard Assist
Farmyard offers a range of services designed to help home gardeners grow their own food. “We build raised beds and every one is custom,” Rebecca reported. “They have a minimum height of 12 inches, and the most popular is 18 inches so you can grow potatoes. We can increase the height as needed; we have some clients that are a little bit older and don’t care to bend down quite as much. We also have clients that are wheelchair bound, and we build garden tables that they can put their wheelchairs underneath so they can still have gardening opportunities.”
Farmyard sees to the drip irrigation for the beds and provides the plants as well. “Because organic plants are a little bit difficult to find, we’ve taken that on ourselves and converted a spare bedroom in the house into a place for growing a lot of our own transplants for our clients,” Rebecca added. “This year we grew approximately 3,000 heirloom tomatoes.”
If someone wants to do any or all of this work without professional assistance, Farmyard will act as consultants and also offers maintenance packages. Basically the company can supply any level of support a client desires.
Edible Schoolyard Program
As an added service, Farmyard has assisted local schools in growing their own food and getting it into their cafeterias. “So far we’ve done three different school installations,” said Rebecca. “We have a planting day with the kids and we work with the nutritional directors, who are used to something a little bit different than super-fresh produce coming through the door. We work with kids and schools and the whole staff.”
A Natural Progression
Rebecca and her sister, Sarah, did come by the vocation honestly. “We grew up in North Scottsdale [adjacent to Phoenix] when it was completely undeveloped,” Rebecca recalled. “Our parents had a large vegetable garden because the nearest grocery store was about 20 miles away. So sustainability was part of our life from the get-go.”
Rebecca herself entered the culinary field—and it was there she was motivated to help create a burgeoning local food source. “I left the culinary field because I saw boxes come in through the back door containing oranges, lemons and other produce,” she continued. “They had stickers on them from places like Australia. We were in what was an old citrus grove in the middle of Phoenix, and it just didn’t make sense why we were shipping produce from across the country or across the world when things were just a mile or so away from the kitchen. So I went from culinary to farming.”
Neighbors Take Notice
Farmyard didn’t actually begin life as an intended business. At first, it was just something to do in spare time. “My husband formerly had a zero-emissions lawn-care business,” Rebecca related. “When the economy kind of took a downturn in 2007–2008, he had some spare time on his hands. We already had the whole backyard done in vegetable gardens, and had a few chickens. We’d always looked at the front yard, which was just a big patch of grass, as kind of a wasted space; so we wanted to expand out front, and that’s what we did.
“As we were doing this, we had quite a bit of interest from neighbors passing by. There’s a local nursery just a couple blocks away and they would tell their customers, ‘Hey, if you’re interested in growing vegetables, you need to go around the corner and see what these people are doing!’”
The interest grew, and Rebecca, her sister and her husband decided to try it as an enterprise. “As we generated interest I put up a website, and we said, ‘We’ll just see how this goes,’” Rebecca continued. “I was working full time as a partner in a catering company at the time.”
But then they garnered some great publicity. “A neighbor around the corner had a friend that was a freelance writer for Sunset magazine,” Rebecca said. “She did a little piece for us in Sunset, which put us on the map. Then Phoenix Home and Garden magazine did a really nice article on us. The publicity kind of came to us—an organic process. We’re in our fourth year now, and we’ve seen tremendous growth year over year. We’ve retained probably about 85 percent of our clients on a season-to-season basis.”
In addition to assisting everyone else, Farmyard also sells its own produce. “We have four different urban farms, so we practice what we preach,” said Rebecca. “Through our CSA we feed around 72 families a week. Usually everything is harvested within 24 hours of our delivering to their doorsteps.”
Due to the heated growing season, Farmyard is now extending its own crop growth area. “We have a challenge here in Phoenix,” Rebecca explained. “June is really the prime time for tomatoes; all those heirloom tomatoes are ripening right at the end of May, beginning of June. But unfortunately it’s too hot for lettuces; so people have all of these fantastic tomatoes and cucumbers coming at them, and they’re going, ‘Wait! Where’s the lettuce?’ As a result, we’re looking at expanding up into northern Arizona so we can take advantage of a cooler climate and accommodate our customers in getting some more variety.”
Farmyard is a remarkable example of a local food business—which would work in practically any city.
For more information, please visit www.myfarmyard.com.