Urban farming – River Road Gardens

Where will Tucson’s secure food supply come from? Part of the answer lies in places like the River Road Gardens.

Located on four acres of the Tucson Waldorf School on River Road, the River Road Gardens is run by the husband and wife team of Jon McNamara and Emily Mabry. With the help of a full-time Wwoof-er (a world wide program of organic farming apprentices), and help from the CSA members they serve, Jon and Emily tend an acre of plants on a four-acre site owned by the Waldorf School.

Even in 102-degree heat, the Gardens has dozens of long rows of lushFeeding Tucson - River Road Gardens sunflowers vegetables that are being harvested now or in the coming few months. The tallest plants are sunflowers, which provide shade, both within the rows and as personal companions for each of the newly planted fruit trees in the new water-harvesting orchard built by Watershed Management Group volunteers. The farm provides its own compost by operating a series of “windrows” (long compost piles that are turned by a front-end loader). Fighting Bermuda grass is a never-ending battle, but their newest strategy of “solarizing” a bed with transparent plastic seems to keep the enemy under control.

Like most farming these days, the farm itself doesn’t fully cover all the costs of living. But the opportunity to work outside, confront and meet challenges, be your own bosses, and have the satisfaction of feeding Tucsonans fresh, GMO-free food makes it worth the effort.

So what do the 65 families of the River Road Gardens CSA get? Whatever’s in season, of course. Unlike most places, Tucson can grow food year-round. This month, members will receive: kale, salad mix, onions, garlic, peppers, egg plant, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and okra.

The key question is: What will it take to have more small urban farms like River Road Gardens?

According to Jon, there are a few key bottlenecks that are keeping them from serving 100 families and making a decent wage for all their hard work:

  • People power is certainly a big issue, including providing housing. Even though River Road Gardens is in the urban area, the Gardens is rural enough that inexpensive housing is not available in the immediate area, and there is no bus service.
  • Access to legal food processing facilities called commercial kitchens. Processed food, which includes washing and cutting, can’t be sold or given to others without meeting health codes in approved facilities. Unfortunately, there are only a few such facilities in Tucson, and most of them are taken up by food trucks. More processing facilities would allow for higher value products with higher return for the farmer.
  • Insufficient CSA members. Competition with subsidized imported food keeps the number of Community Supported Agriculture members down. Food freshness and availability, concerns for food security, and the rise of an indigenous cuisine are all factors that influence how many people buy local.

Tucson gets enough rainfall to support 10s of thousands of acres of urban farms. It’s the other things get in the way.

Attending: Mark Higgins, Gary Vender, Javier Lopez, Sheryl Joy, Judith Mattson, Paula Schlusberg, Norman Soifer, Crystal Soifer, Kefin Hendrix, Camille Kershner, Jazz Dolan, Sean Herman, Leslie Hunten, Terry Anderson, Sofia Angkasa, Chris Breckenfeld, Don Breckenfeld, Erica Hernandez, Richard Roati, Tres English