Chapter 1: San Xavier Co-op Farm
One great reason for supporting local food systems is to reduce the amount of fossil fuel that goes into transporting goods and produce hundreds of thousands of miles. Food that is grown right around where we live is more sustainable and connects us to the places we live. I’m on a mission to ride my bicycle to farms and food producers in and around Tucson using nothing more than my locally sourced breakfast as fuel. My aim is to highlight not only all the wonderful, diverse, sustainable and ethically grown foods, but also to espouse the joys of shrinking ones ecological footprint. So hop on my handlebars and let’s ride!
On an early Friday morning, I drink my coffee, do a crossword and prepare myself for a long bike ride out to the eastern portion of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the San Xavier Nation where the San Xavier Co-op Farm thrives. The farm is a product of multiple land owners coming together to cooperatively farm their land as their ancestors had before them after their communal land was parceled up in an attempt to divide and assimilate the Tohono O’odham people. The result of this community effort is the San Xavier Co-op Farm. The farm is located some 12 miles south of downtown Tucson, along the banks of the now mostly dry Santa Cruz River. The Co-op is made up of hundreds of land owners and encompasses 800 acres. The farm currently employs 21 people, 90% of whom are native. Beyond re-establishing communal traditions, the farm was born from an observed need to bring native and heritage foods back into tribal member’s diets due to increased levels of diabetes and other illnesses within the community.
The path I chose to carry me out to the farm closely follows the Santa Cruz River, which is of course fitting, as the river is the sole reason the Tohono people were able to cultivate crops in this area in the first place. If the river were flowing, I would be traveling upstream towards it’s headwaters just north of the US/Mexico border. The Santa Cruz river is the lifeblood of the people who originally settled in this area. Along the river path, one finds many varieties of native shrubs and trees. The palo verde beans are ripe and ready for picking and the mesquite tree branches sag with the weight of not yet ripe pods. This tranquil path comes to an end at Valencia Road and I am forced to travel briefly on this major thruway, though there is at least a solid bike lane. A stark transition from the river path, Valencia Road is littered with big-box stores and a smattering of other non-local business. I wind my way west, past Mattress Firm after Mattress Firm, grateful to turn onto the quieter, more picturesque Mission Road. This is the road that will lead me to the San Xavier del Bac Mission, which if you have the time is worth a stop. Out here, I begin to imagine a bygone way of life as I ride alongside cultivated fields and dusty dirt roads. The sounds of diesel trunks, kindly giving me ample room as they pass me on this narrow road with almost no shoulder, bring me back to a more modern reality.
About one mile southeast of the Mission sits the farm headquarters. I pull up to the gate just as it is being opened by Jerry, the hay loading supervisor on the farm. He guides me to the office where I am met by Michael, the marketing and advertising coordinator for the farm. Michael leads me on a tour around the farm. We first visit the area where hundreds of cholla buds are laid out flat on raised screens drying in the hot sun. They will dry here for 2 weeks and then be picked through by hand before being moved to the store, where they will again be inspected to ensure that all spines have been removed. It is there in the back room of the building that houses the co-op store that the dried buds will live in large barrels, being packaged only as needed. As Michael shows me the area where students from the Tohono O’odham Community College recently dug burms and swales in order to better catch and use the rainwater from the monsoons, she tells me that despite having grown up just a few miles from the farm, she really didn’t know much about it until she started working here earlier this year. She tells me she has learned so much about the history of her people from working on the farm. As we walk through the fruit tree orchard, replete with apricots, apples and very ripe peaches, she tells me of the Tohono tradition still being observed on the farm today wherein the first harvest must be given to the two sets of twins who work on the farm. This is done because in this way it is as if twice as many people are being fed at one time and is seen as a prayer for an abundant harvest.
We make our way past the fields that house the University of Arizona’s Compost Cats, where they are given access to the fields in exchange for providing the farm with healthy compost to use in their fields and to sell in their store. The San Xavier Co-op Farm has many partnerships throughout the Tucson area and is now beginning to see interest in their heritage products from as far as Wyoming. They do not yet have an online store, but it is in the works. You can find San Xavier Co-op products such as Pima Lima Beans, Red and White Tepary Beans, Pima Durham Wheat, Mesquite Flour and Cholla Buds among other things at their store, the Santa Cruz River Farmer’s market, the Food Conspiracy Co-op and a few other places around Tucson. We finish off our tour in their store, where I purchase juicy peaches, several varieties of dried beans, whole wheat flour and some mesquite cookies as a snack for my bike ride home. I am helped in the store by Brenda, the store cashier who has held just about every position on the farm and has been there the longest of any employee. She kindly answers all of my questions about the farm and about herself. Michael tells me that although she understands it, she personally doesn’t speak Tohono. Brenda, however, does. Brenda says the fact that she is able to speak what is unfortunately a language spoken by fewer and fewer people every year, means a lot to the community members that come into the store to buy their produce and grains.
I say my goodbyes and get back on the road, carrying with me the products of a lot of hard work and the dedication of a solid community with farmers who have adapted their crops across many years and climatic changes. I will use these products to make some of the many recipes provided at the store, dreamt up by Phyllis, the Co-op’s resident chef and educator. You can find more information about the San Xavier Co-op Farm on Good Food Finder and about the various amazing bike paths throughout the Tucson area on the Pima County Regional Map. The farm also hosts various events throughout the year, check out their website for more information. They are open Monday through Friday from 8 am to 4:45 pm.