Planting Sustainable Ideas

Hard to see while driving on the Loop 101, Singh Farms overlooks the freeway off of Thomas Road.
Photo by Shawn Raymundo

The ground at the Singh Farms’s gate is completely flooded from the rainfall the night before, making it an Indiana Jones operation to leap from one dry spot to another. The difficulty lies in preventing my shoes and feet from getting completely soaked or worse — falling into the muddy driveway with expensive camera and audio gear. After I make several gravity-defying leaps to enter through the gate, I look around at the numerous mud puddles scattered throughout the entrance of the farm. With every puddle avoided, I inch closer to the forest-like yard. The increasing humidity from the overcast weather and rain creates a sticky sweat that glues my clothes to my body.

Sitting on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community off the Loop 101 and Thomas Road, it is hard to notice from the outside that this is no ordinary farm. The garden beds are not opened up to sunlight like most farms; instead they are covered with acres of tall, big-leaf trees that resemble a rainforest labyrinth.

Scattered throughout Singh Farms are benches, cats, barbecue, fire pits, and other miscellaneous nuances that visitors enjoy. The maze-like farm opens its gates, preferably without the excess mud and grime, every Saturday for their weekly farmers market during the fall and spring seasons.

A green pepper continues to grow at Singh Farms.
Photo by Shawn Raymundo

During the summer months the trees provide the plants and vegetation with plenty of shade so that water used to grow crops does not evaporate so quickly, according to Singh Farms Master Farmer Jim Dennis.

“That’s one trick during the summer that helps cut down your watering,” Dennis says. “Plus, since we don’t have the range of crops to grow in the summer that we do in the winter, we can let certain beds rest.”

Singh Farms, which sells vegetables to the organic café Engrained in the Memorial Union at ASU through Aramark, practices sustainable and organic growth because of the shortage of water in the dry Southwest region, Dennis says.

Do Monsoons Matter?

The Valley goes through its monsoon season at the end of the summer months. However, summer rainfall is not a major contributor to growing vegetation in the Southwest. The majority of farmers in this region of the U.S. rely on irrigation and, more recently, drip irrigation systems. Dennis says drip irrigation, like the infrastructure Singh Farms uses, provides a more efficient and focused supply of water to the crops without overusing unnecessary water. Dennis also says that Ken Singh, owner and operator of the farm, prefers to use compost, a type of fertilizer that keeps the soil cool and sustains the water underneath.

Singh Farms’s Master Farmer Jim Dennis shows how the compost fertilizer acts as a prime insolate for soil and water.
Photo by Shawn Raymundo

“(Compost) helps insulate your soil, keeps it a little bit cooler. If you have one flat surface water will tend to roll off it, where this being chunky you don’t get the water down through it, and so it’s almost like a sponge,” Dennis says.

A number of Arizona homes, however, still use standard irrigation systems, which flood the entire yard, Dennis says. Those systems, he says, can be very inefficient and waste water.

Living in the Desert

Though 60 percent of the U.S. is in some form of drought, according to Nancy Selover, state climatologist and senior sustainability scientist for ASU, this year is actually mild compared to previous years throughout the decade.

“A year ago about this time Texas and Oklahoma was in the worst drought they had, at least since the 1930s and they were having brush fires throughout Texas. They were having to sell off cattle. There was just no water at all,” Selover says.

Since the Valley was a major agricultural area for more than 100 years, irrigation systems and canals connected to the Salt and Colorado rivers were built by the Salt River Project and Central Arizona Project early on to combat the lack of rainfall and prevent water shortages during dry spells, Selover says.

“We have good planning because originally we were all agriculture in the Phoenix metropolitan area,” Selover says. “(There) was a lot of farmland and farmers and ranchers who owned the land had some tough issues at the end of the 19th century … they had a really long dry spell.”

The early planning of reservoirs and canals has provided the Valley with enough storage water that our agriculture has not felt a major negative effect of the drought, says Ellen Newell, associate director of facilities management at ASU.

“Water is a critical issue in the West with drought but so far there has been enough water in the Phoenix Valley, we haven’t been rationed,” Newell says. “Here on campus we’re constantly thinking we should be more efficient, we’re trying to upgrade the irrigation systems to use less water.”

If the extremely dry weather persists, stricter water regulations may occur, Newell says, because Arizona’s water supply relies heavily on melted snow-pack to the Colorado and Salt rivers.

“The more efficient people can be about their water use, the less likely it is we’ll have to have water restrictions,” Newell says.

What’s with the Haboobs?

Newell and Selover both say that rather than experiencing the agricultural problems that are seen throughout the country, Arizona instead sees a rise in brush fires and dust storms because of the drought.

The Valley particularly has seen a surge of large dust storms in the past few years, which are caused by a mixture of the increasingly dry weather and dirt from unused farmland that many developers walked away from after the economic downturn, Selover says.

The U.S. typically goes through cycles of drought and periods of wetness, Selover says, and each cycle can range from five to 10 years. Whether or not the country will emerge from drought anytime soon, Selover stresses the need for water conservation, especially in such a dry state.

“We can’t really do anything to prevent it, but we can remember that we live in a desert and we can try to be more conservative with the way we use our water,” Selover says.

Those Plants Are Thirsty

Robert Golo says he and his father James Golo of Golo Organic Farms also try to be conservative with their water use by implementing a necessity-based flood system, which prioritizes the plants and crops for their water needs.

“To try to conserve we basically look at the type of plants we have and what they need,” Robert says.

Associate Professor for the School of Sustainability Hallie Eakin says it is becoming more common for farmers to adopt drip irrigation systems in areas where water is costly. Farmers benefit financially as it requires less water.

“It’s always to the interest of the farmer to use their water in the most efficient way possible because of the key resources,” Eakin says. “We have noticed that this is something more common in areas where the water is increasingly expensive or difficult to access.”

Newell says ASU has been spending money on upgrades for its irrigation systems by switching over to similar water conservation practices.

“We’ve got areas that are hand watered. We’re trying to get a central control system and put in more modern systems that have more efficient heads, more efficient water distribution,” Newell says.

An Oasis of Optimism

The man-made tunnel stands near the entrance of Singh Farms, taking patrons from the market area to the farm itself.
Photo by Shawn Raymundo

In the past eight years the simple plot of land at Singh Farms has been transformed into the forest it is today. Though during autumn, the leaves from the trees eventually wither and fall, opening up the farm beds too much needed sunlight, Dennis says.

“These mesquites will lighten up quite a bit so come winter this bed in here gets lots of sun, which is important for the winter plants,” Dennis says, “and then spring comes back and leaves grow to provide shade.”

For now, the trees provide Dennis, Singh and the rest of the farmhands a bit of comfort while planting seeds and preparing the beds for harvest. The humidity is still high but so are the spirits of everyone working on the farm, as summer will soon be over.

 

Contact the writer at sraymund@asu.edu or via Twitter @ShawnFVRaymundo