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Growing With Love 

The men behind the successful new Sleeping Frog Farms want to bring organic produce to the masses

Anorthwest-side farm is making a big name for itself—in only its first year of business.

Sleeping Frog Farms snuck up on Tucson, quietly breaking ground last fall in an old horse pasture at 1801 W. Overton Road. Since then, the organic outfit's vegetables have sold out at farmers' markets and the Food Conspiracy Co-op, when they're not gracing plates at some of the finest restaurants in town.

"I use them because they're terrific, and their produce is great," said Janos Wilder, the James Beard Award-winning owner of Janos and J-BAR at the Westin La Paloma. "They're well-versed in what they do, and their practices are wonderful."

I arrived at the farm to find an edible forest inhabited by goats, dragonflies and adorable kittens. In their midst stood a man heaped in dreadlocks, and a guy smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.

Meet Adam Valdivia and C.J. Marks, Tucson's newest veggie gurus.

"This is okra," Valdivia said, pointing to a stalk with a calloused finger. "Its blossoms are beautiful."

Valdivia, 27, and Marks, 32, definitely know how to sweet-talk vegetables, and their harvesting is equally affectionate. The eggplants were treated like Faberge eggs. Same goes for the radishes and melons. Peppers were pampered; basil was caressed.

"We see the beauty in it, and we know how good it looks on the vine," Valdivia said. "This stuff is pretty, and we want to share our excitement about that."

The look of the produce causes candy shops and Christmas lights to come to mind. Five eggplant varieties ranged in color from egg white to royal purple. Tiny crimson peppers dangled near a row of pink radishes. Color peeked from every corner, juxtaposed against the green foliage.

Sleeping Frog Farms is about as independent as they come, but its existence is in line with several growing trends. Local foods are hotter than habañeros these days, and organic farming is on the rise, with the acreage devoted to it in Arizona nearly tripling from 2000 to 2007, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

Hip stuff, for sure, but it takes hard work to pull it all off.

Some work weeks exceed 90 hours, Valdivia said, and they pay themselves a mere $400 each per month. The rest of the farm's income is reinvested. Valdivia's girlfriend, Debbie Weingarten, an employee at the Tucson Community Food Bank's Marana Heritage Farm, helps out, as do a number of volunteers.

"It's a labor of love; it's as simple as that," said Valdivia.

Variety is key, says Marks, so more than 20 veggie varieties are planted in a way that makes the fields look like an impassable, bio-intensive Twister game. Tomatoes, radishes, lettuce, parsley, corn—everything is in a tangle, but the output is staggering.

"We're like, 'Maybe if we move this over an inch, we can get another row in,'" said Marks, laughing. It requires nimble feet and gentler-than-normal farming practices, but it's well worth it: They estimate the output to be around five times more per acre than what they've produced at other gardens.

And there have been other gardens. Their résumés sound like travel guides: Washington. Jamaica. Costa Rica. Canada. Louisiana. Patagonia. But these days, their thoughts are firmly rooted in Tucson, where business is booming.

"We've totally outgrown ourselves," Valdivia said. "If we were growing three times what we are, we'd still be cleaned out every week."

The farm started selling to Zona 78, Harvest, Hacienda del Sol and the Dish in the last month or two alone, and the requests keep coming as word spreads.

"I think we both feel a sense of urgency about it," Valdivia said.

To keep up with demand, Marks and Valdivia are looking at leasing land in Amado. They posted online ads for help through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program (www.wwoof.org). The volunteers—who showed up weeks later—will stay for several months, working for room, board and the experience they'll gain.

As far as local food goes, it doesn't get much better than Sleeping Frog. The veggies rarely travel farther than 12 miles; a recent delivery to Harvest Restaurant at 10355 N. La Cañada Drive only traveled 1.5 miles.

They also use no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, something that appeals to local chefs.

Janos Wilder lists Sleeping Frogs' name on his menus, and Chef Eric Larcom of Primo at the JW Marriott Starr Pass was spotted hand-selecting basil and peppers on a recent morning. Valdivia and Marks are also helping Larcom redesign Primo's chef's garden.

But they've got other plans too. They figure if they can outgrow themselves in a year, anyone can.

"What we want to see is food access," said Valdivia. They want to start community gardens across the city to make their produce available to low-income families.

It's an ambitious idea, but if anyone can pull it off, it's two guys who turned a horse pasture into a verdant foodscape in less than a year.

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