Southern Arizona’s Sleeping Frog Farms got its start on less than an acre of land northwestern Tuscon, where four friends had big dreams of feeding people in a most-literal food desert. The name might sound odd for an area surrounded by dry dirt and drought-tolerant plants, but it plays homage to their first row of fava beans, where the drip irrigation left puddles on either end of the row where frogs liked to sleep.
Since those early days, the farm has expanded to 75 acres, now located 60 miles east in the Cascabel corridor of the San Pedro River Valley. As a Certified Naturally Grown farm that eschews chemical fertilizers for sustainable soil amendments like bat guano, it produces some of the healthiest, most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables in Southern Arizona for restaurants, farmers markets and its community-supported-agriculture program.
It’s All About Soil
Although clearly a success story, Sleeping Frog Farms has faced its fair share of challenges: namely, drought. Much like in California, there are few places in Arizona that aren’t reliant on out-of-state water, and when a 15-acre vegetable plot is at the heart of your business, that can be a problem.
“We specifically chose our watershed area when we moved our operation from Tucson to the San Pedro River Valley because of the purity and level of protection of our aquifer,” says co-owner C.J. Marks. “The high alkalinity of the water did not dissuade us from our goals because we have found ways around this using probiotic and natural soil building methods.”
In other words: They’re farming soil. Using a combination of steer manure, bat guano, effective microorganisms (a microbial inoculant) and organic pest control methods, they’re building up healthy soil in a place that’s vastly inhospitable to farming culture.
Feeding Southern Arizona
Sleeping Frog Farms puts all of this effort into the soil to honor their commitment to building up the local food system.
“Our goal is to provide healthy food with low water inputs in this food desert,” say Marks, who grew up on a Louisiana farm and has traveled to different regions throughout the country to learn new farming methods. “On a personal level, I simply fell in love with the land and community we now serve.”
The farmers focus on paying forward the knowledge and resources they’ve acquired. They teach natural-farming, soil-building and conservation techniques whenever possible, especially when working with schools, health institutions and the restaurants they serve. Plus, any produce they can’t sell is donated to the Food Bank of Arizona, local businesses and other nonprofits to help nourish those that don’t always have access to healthy food.
Take On the Challenge
There’s no doubt that growing a small garden plot to a successful vegetable business is no easy task, but Marks and the others at Sleeping Frog Farms want to see other budding farmers succeed. To help beginning farmers along in their journeys, Marks offers these tips:
1. Invest Time
Work for a year or more in the region where you want to produce food, and learn hand-on what it takes mentally physically and emotionally to do this sort of service work day after day. Sleeping Frog Farms offers an internship program to offer new farmers the chance to do just that, and many other farms across the nation offer similar opportunities.
2. Start Small
You’ll hear this from farmers time and time again. Starting with a core, manageable project will help you build your business—and save your sanity—until you find your loyal niche markets.
3. Document Everything
A farmer lives and dies by the numbers. Keep track of records of all kinds—planting, harvesting, irrigation, expenses and more—and keep them organized.
4. Know Your Soil
Test the pH of both your soil and water to determine what amendments you need to produce the healthiest food possible, reducing the need for insecticides of all kinds—chemical or organic.
5. Conserve Water
Learn soil-building and composting methods for your specific region to reduce reliance on irrigation.
When You Visit
Sleeping Frog Farms has a lot to offer Southern Arizona and beyond. Stop by for one of their on-farm tours or workshops, and while you’re in the area check out these other great activities.
- Amerind Museum: Located in Dragoon, Ariz., this museum’s exhibitions tell the story of America’s first people groups, from Alaska to South America. The art gallery features works on western themes and presentation of contemporary Native American art. Visitors may find Native American artists demonstrating their skills in the museum’s main gallery.
- Gammons Gulch Movie Set and Museum: Movie fans will not be disappointed with this side trip from Sleeping Frog Farms. With its original, well-preserved buildings, the western-style town replica complete with a jail, a saloon and a Wells Fargo Bank has been the set for period films ranging from the late 1870s to the mid-1920s, as well as music videos and commercials.