Urban Farm Tour
Home Aquaponics and Edible Landscping
We toured Steve’s house with special interest in his aquaponics installation. But he has a number of other projects in process that are turning this 1950’s house into an energy efficient and almost self-contained mini-farm.
First we visited his back yard were we saw his rain water harvesting system. Steve has installed five tanks for capturing rain water. The large tank below holds 3200 gallons and the four smaller tanks hold 550 gallons each. Note the vertical pipe to the right called a “first flush” system. It traps debris from the roof before it enters the tank. Steve got most of the parts for this trap from Home Depot.
Note the chicken coop and composting pit in front of the large tank. Steve once had about 11 to 12 chickens but, unbelievably, a bobcat penetrated deep into this residential area and wiped them out. Steve caught the cat in the act but the animal, unperturbed, casually climbed over the back wall – dead chicken in tow. The composting pit is still working and Steve collects sawdust from local wood working shops for his composting mixture.
Steve has been replacing his original windows with more energy efficient versions and has added a layer of straw covered with adobe to the existing walls. He is debating about adding a waterproof final layer (a lime layer) but that will significantly raise the cost of the project.
Here is a wall with straw awaiting the adobe coating.
We did not discuss them in detail but Steve also has solar electric and solar hot water systems.
We moved to the front of the house to see the aquaponics systems. The key elements of the system are modified plastic IBC containers (Intermediate Bulk Containers used for shipping). He has added stucco and decorated the outside of some of them to make them more attractive. He has three systems, two in a green house and one out front of it.
The decorated system in front of the green house has an elevated fish tank in the back and water flows down to the tanks that hold the plants. The plants clean the water which is pumped back to the fish tank. A float valve automatically adds water to the tanks as needed. The greenhouse systems operate the same way.
One difficulty with this system is timing the planting of different crops so that he has a consistent supply of vegetables all year. Also some plants like the lava rock based system (lettuce and chard) and some root plans do not. Of course he harvests and eats the catfish as well. The aquaponics system can extend the growing season for water-loving plants because it is too expensive to provide that much water to an ordinary garden here in Tucson.
Paul and his wife got interested in farming when he served in the Peace Corps in the mid-90’s in Cameroon. He worked with farmers there to help them farm without chemicals. In 98 he left the corps, worked on a few farms and got a degree in agriculture. He met his wife Dana at school. Dana had worked for the Community Food Bank on their backyard gardening program. She also started a 12 acre farm in Marana for the food bank.
Paul then started an agriculture naturel resources program at Tohono Community College in Sells. Dana started Menlow Farms which was a distributed land farming enterprise. She learned how to run CSA’s from this effort as well as other aspects of the agricultural business.
Eventually the couple wanted to start their own farm. They had learned what grows, when to plant, how to plant, how much to produce, how to run a CSA, how to distribute the produce and how much to charge. They had also learned much about soil, insect control, water management, and irrigation.
It took about a year and a half to find the right location in the southwest but eventually they found the 4.5 acres that is now the two and a half year old Rattlebox Farm. They named it Rattlebox after a flowering legume that, when it dries out, rattles when you shake it. Or the name could have come from their noisy old tractor – you can pick which story you like best.
They needed good soil, reliable water and no Bermuda grass. The soil near the rivers is good in Tucson – in their case a sandy loam. The best feature of this farm is that it has pre-1980’s water rights that allow them to pump enough water to farm it. It has an allowance of 11 acre feet of water which is more than enough (2.5 feet deep if you dumped it all at once).
Shown below is their main field but they are developing another one-acre field that will leave trees in place. They want to preserve the land for animals and bees while still farming it and have applied for a grant to help them accomplish this more difficult but environmentally friendly form of farming.
This field has 32 beds, each 130 feet long. They are organized into eight blocks of four beds each so the irrigation system can do one block at a time. They do fall, winter and spring growing seasons and skip the heat of early summer, that is, they hold off planting until the end of June or beginning of July. They grow unions, broccoli, Asian greens, head lettuce, turnips, radishes, cilantro, carrots, cabbage, beets, fennel and others. The fabric cover your see prevents frost damage as well as reduce insect infestation. The covers also help even during hot months because they retain humidity and delay wilting.
We saw his produce preparation area. For every one hour of harvesting it takes two hours to wash and package the produce. Note the washing machine salad spinner in the shed on the left.
He has a home-built cooler popular with farmers because it hacks a standard AC window air conditioner. A farmer just needs to insulate and seal a room or trailer, install the air conditioner and modify it with a module (called a Coolbot) that tricks the AC into cooling the room down into the 30’s. This trailer is used to temporarily store produce to protect it from frost before packaging and it can also be towed to farmers markets.
Asked about saving seeds he said that can be tricky because you have to leave plants in the ground longer to harvest the seeds and then they become infested with insects. They do, however, save seeds from an heirloom watermelon they grow.
The backbone of their business model is the CSA. Farmers markets and restaurants are more variable and so it is hard to plan ahead for them. Asked if he noticed a shift in the climate he said he has not been at this farm long enough to tell but neighbors claim that there seem to be fewer severe frosts than in the past.
See www.rattleboxfarm.com for more information.
We had a great walking lecture on the history of this 4100 year old agricultural area that is now Mission Gardens. It is one of the oldest cultivated locations in the US. The gardens is really a living agricultural history museum divided into sections of plants that represent agriculture from native American times to modern agriculture and there is even a garden of the future. Even at that, the project is only half finished and they would appreciate any help (money or labor) that Tucsonans can provide.
We circumnavigated the walled garden (the wall was build by the Spanish missionaries) and visited the different sections. One interesting native plant was an Ancient Sonoran Wheat which some claim can be eaten by gluten sensitive people with no ill effects. Some plants, of course, were brought here by those who migrated to or invaded the area. The agricultural zones and varieties of plants shown are too numerous to list here. Gardeners must take the tour themselves and be ready with pad and camera to capture the flood of information the docents provide.
After the tour we were treated to a delicious lunch created with mostly local produce. Organizers took the opportunity of asking each of the six tables what they thought were the key areas of concern related to local food production.
The final element of the tour and lunch was to address the question “What do we need to do to produce and eat a lot more local food?” Some recurring themes included the need for education and exchanging information, developing ways to connect producers and eaters, and helping urban farmers find land that is suitable for their needs.
At the followup meeting in a few weeks, we will continue the discussion about what can and should come next.
If you want to be a part of this discussion, be sure to follow this Doodle link, and let us know what times work for you. <http://doodle.com/poll/7a4abexft9aew4kw>
by Paul Tynan