Gardeners and small farmers are growing produce with surprisingly little water

And many are drawing on the agricultural knowledge of Native Americans, who thrived in the arid Southwest before colonization.

(Adam Riding | The New York Times) Ju:ki Patricio, a young member of the Tohono O'odham Nation, plants seeds at the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ajo, Ariz., April 19, 2023.

Kim Elle had never grown anything more complicated than houseplants when she and her husband moved from Georgia to suburban Phoenix in 2021. Faced with a sizable yard in a well-groomed subdivision, she turned to gardening.

But Elle, a retired Air Force intelligence officer, was motivated by more than the pandemic-induced boredom that drove many homebound Americans to take up gardening. The Southwest was in the throes of the worst drought recorded there in more than 12 centuries, a crisis now in its 23rd year.

“All we hear on the news is that we don’t have any water,” she said. “I’m re-creating my yard in a way that uses less water.

(Adam Riding | The New York Times) Peaches grow in Kim Elle's home garden in Litchfield Park, Ariz.

Elle is among thousands of Arizona gardeners and small farmers who are setting examples for how to responsibly grow food in a state where water is vanishing and the population is soaring. Their collective action raises hope that individuals can help prevent the situation in the Southwest from spiraling into a disaster.

The Colorado River, Arizona’s largest water source, is so low that last month, for the first time in history, the federal government proposed cutting water allotments to three states that rely on the river, including Arizona. Climate change is parching soil and depleting aquifers already taxed by corporate agriculture. Large swaths of Arizona farmland are devoted to water-hungry crops like lettuce and hay, grown to feed livestock as far away as Saudi Arabia.

Over the past two years, Elle has educated herself in permaculture, a method of gardening and landscaping that uses techniques like drip irrigation, composting and rainwater collection to build sustainable ecosystems. She has dug up grass and other plants ill-suited to the desert climate.

Elle stepped under an artichoke branch last month to stroke an abundant Swiss chard plant in one of her gardens. She gazed at the 11 fruit trees she has planted, which include peach, nectarine and Mexican lime.

Her work has only just begun. “There’s still too much grass,” she said. “Everything you see will be different in a year.”

Janis Norton was also a gardening novice in 2016, when her family moved to their home in Peoria, about 15 miles northwest of downtown Phoenix.

Drawing on lessons she learned at the Urban Farm, a Phoenix-based business that teaches home gardeners how to grow food in a dry climate, Norton turned her backyard “from bare-bones, dead-ground scratch” into a lush mix of garden and orchard. She’d be open to raising chickens as well, if not for the presence of predators like coyotes, roadrunners and rattlesnakes.

(Adam Riding | The New York Times) Janis Norton in her backyard in Peoria, Ariz., April 18, 2023. Drawing on lessons she learned at the Urban Farm, a Phoenix-based business that teaches home gardeners how to grow food in a dry climate, Norton turned her backyard into a lush mix of garden and orchard.

What appears wild is the result of careful planning. A mulberry tree provides shade for the dragon fruit growing around its trunk. The drip tape that waters apricot, plum and apple trees also irrigates Mexican primrose flowers and sweet potato vines below.

“These grapes are strategically placed to keep the afternoon sun off these young trees,” Norton said. “I take the leaves and give them to a lady four doors down. She uses them to make dolmas.”

Norton is an ardent member of the Phoenix area’s sprawling gardening community. She is now general manager of the Urban Farm, and owns a seed business with its founder, Greg Peterson. Sitting beneath wind chimes in her backyard, she looked forward to trading her fruits for a neighbor’s homegrown vegetables. “People who are growing food speak the same language,” she said, “no matter where they are politically.”

Feeding the soil, feeding people

A primary goal of gardeners like Norton is to naturally rejuvenate soil degraded by synthetic fertilizers and neglect. Zach Brooks started the Arizona Worm Farm to help.

Nearly halfway into a 10-year plan to establish a fully sustainable, off-the-grid farm, Brooks sees his project as proof of how quickly damaged land can be restored using natural methods. It includes gardens and a food forest, a dense collection of plants that support one another, comprising mostly fruits and vegetables. Together, they provide produce for a small farm store and meals for his 20 employees.

(Adam Riding | The New York Times) Zach Brooks, founder of the Arizona Worm Farm, inspects soil on the farm in Phoenix.

The composting keeps food waste from rotting in landfills, where it generates methane, a gas more environmentally damaging than carbon dioxide.

Chickens are fed a diet of fly larvae bred on the farm. “This is how I get people to eat insects,” said Brooks, showing off a basket of fresh eggs.

About 5 miles to the north, Nika Forte uses compost donated by the worm farm to grow crops in an old parking lot next to a highway. It is one of three urban farms she manages for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a local charity.

The farm provides produce for food pantries and an adjacent cafeteria, which serves free meals to families. Forte’s farm work is part of a virtuous cycle that aims to address multiple crises, including homelessness, which rose 23% in Arizona from 2020 to 2022.

(Adam Riding | The New York Times) The Society of St. Vincent de Paul's Walton Family Garden in Phoenix.

“We’re focused on saving water while also trying to grow a massive amount of food for our clients,” Forte said.

Volunteers provide restaurant-style service to families in the cafeteria’s dining room, which includes an area for children to play and get help with their homework.

(Adam Riding | The New York Times) Nika Forte, who manages three urban farms for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, in Phoenix.

Leilani Arizmendi has been coming here since she was a child. Now a college student, she visits the cafeteria every day with her family for meals and to work as a literacy tutor.

“Leilani is one of our stars,” said Marisol Saldivar, St. Vincent’s public relations manager. “This is where we break the cycle of poverty.”

Tapping Into Old Wisdom

As challenging as it is to farm and garden around Phoenix, Sterling Johnson said it’s even more so in Ajo, about 100 miles south, which is even hotter and dryer.

“If we can do it out here,” he said, “we think you can do it anywhere.”

Johnson, a semiretired rodeo cowboy, is co-director of the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture and a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose ancestral land in the Sonoran Desert stretches from Arizona into Mexico.

Founded in 2008 by Nina Sajovec, a Slovenian immigrant, the center teaches locals to grow food in desert conditions. Many have gone on to sell the produce and merchandise at farmers markets, which helps to fill a gaping hole in the community’s food resources.

“There is only one grocery store on the reservation,” which is the size of Connecticut, said Sajovec, who is also the center’s co-director.

Indigenous peoples have a long history of growing food in adverse conditions. The need to return to a sustainable food system was underscored earlier in the pandemic, when Johnson said local stores and food banks stopped receiving fresh fruit and vegetables. “All of the fresh produce was going to big cities,” he said.

Ju:ki Patricio is among the young Tohono O’odham Nation members Johnson mentors. The two men met in Ajo, at a garden surrounded by pavement, that helps supply a nearby food pantry and restaurant run by the Ajo Center.

Patricio dug shallow trenches and dropped tepary bean seeds into them. The legumes are a staple in the desert Southwest, where Indigenous peoples have used dry-farming techniques for thousands of years.

“A lot of people here can’t afford water to do a garden,” Johnson said. “The only option is dry farming.”

Scaling It Up

“Farming can’t continue like it is in the West,” said Dax Hansen, a blockchain lawyer and regenerative organic farmer. “You have to grow regeneratively or you’re going to run out of water.”

Oatman, which includes a packaged goods business, is a collaborative effort. Heartquist Hollow Family Farm helps raise the sheep.

(Adam Riding | The New York Times) Sheep at Oatman Flats Ranch in Gila Bend, Ariz.

After visiting Mission Garden, in Tucson, which showcases crops grown in the region before colonialization, Hansen told Dena Cowan, the garden’s curator, “I want to do this, but 1,000 times bigger.”

“I told him he’s crazy,” Cowan said. She was walking with Yadi Wang, Oatman’s farm manager, between the agave and prickly pear growing in the shade of native trees (mesquite, palo verde) and fruit trees (pomegranate, fig) adapted to the soil and climate.

Wang had never seen a farm before moving to the United States from China to play college basketball in the mid-2010s. He was inspired to become a regenerative farmer by his former career as a chemical process engineer.

“I saw firsthand a lot of environmental devastation,” he said.

(Adam Riding | The New York Times) Yadi Wang, the farm manager of Oatman Flats Ranch, on the wheat farm in Gila Bend, Ariz.

At sunset, the collaborators gathered beneath a tamarack tree for a dinner of ingredients grown or raised on the land, including lamb and cactus.

“We use less water from our 10 wells than a typical farm uses from one well,” Hansen said as he poured whiskey that had been made with Oatman wheat. “We can make this a success. We have to.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.