The Word Is 'Local'

On a small plot of land off River Road, some volunteer farmers are doing big things

The 3-year-old River Road Gardens at the Tucson Waldorf School's River Bend Campus takes up only an acre. It's too small to be considered a farm, although it's a lot larger than the typical backyard garden.

But the operation, run by the husband-and-wife team of Jon McNamara and Emily Mabry, has become a staple of Tucson's local-food community. Though the word organic has become ingrained in the minds of consumers, the people at River Road Gardens emphasize that local is the more-important term.

"The success of local agriculture will come when more people are willing to really pay attention to seasonal availability of local foods and make some personal sacrifices, supporting what's coming out of the ground in the area that they live in," McNamara said. "The training that we've all received as a society is to get whatever we want, whenever we want ... so that's a challenge."

The veggie farm distributes its goods to local restaurants, participates in the farmers' market at Maynards Market and Kitchen, and has its own small food stand once a week. Currently, River Road Gardens is growing mostly greens and root vegetables, such as kale, spinach, a salad mix, mizuna, turnips, scallions, leeks, radishes and rutabagas. Volunteers recently planted the first tomatoes of the year, which will take about two months to grow.

About 60 community-supported agriculture subscribers pay for a three-month supply of fresh vegetables that they pick up from the garden weekly.

"Our CSA is really the beauty and the base of our operation. ... People willing to subscribe to the CSA are the individuals who are really willing to put their money where their beliefs are," McNamara said. "They're willing to put their money up-front at the beginning of every CSA session and share in the inherent risks of an agricultural undertaking. Should there be a crop loss for any reason, we've already received payment for that session, to a degree, to help carry us through tough times."

Becoming a CSA member sometimes forces people to be creative, because they may be going home with a lot of the same vegetables at certain times of year. But "it's such an amazing thing to have your food grow right where you are," said Carman Ryken, the CSA coordinator.

The weekly cost ends up being about $25, Ryken said.

Ryken's son attends the Waldorf School with which River Road Gardens shares land. As a mother, she said, she tries to feed her children healthy foods, and finds it upsetting that unhealthy foods are the go-to for most people, because they're cheaper. She eventually started working for River Road—with payment in vegetables—and her son works in the garden with his class.

"Everything we eat, we say, 'Did this come from the farm?'" she said. "It means something. It's special."

River Road Gardens is a biodynamic farm, a phrase that means different things to different people. Biodynamics is a form of organic farming that works with the natural rhythms of the Earth. It encompasses the idea that farmers should give back as much as they take from the land. However, although everything McNamara and Mabry do is organic, River Road is not a certified organic farm; McNamara said such certifications are costly and not of much interest to him.

From the standpoint of energy consumption, boosting the local economy and nutritional value, buying local makes the most sense, he said.

"It's really absurd, and it's a fairly modern phenomenon—the concept of shipping to the scale that we see it today," McNamara said. "The idea of shipping food thousands of miles in refrigerated vehicles is not a sustainable model."

He admits that buying local and organic foods will inevitably cost more, but said if people stop to really consider what they're buying for a dollar at a supermarket, they will think twice.

"There's no food value," he said. "The synthetic fertilizers that are used create, essentially, plants devoid of life."

The couple started River Road Gardens a few years ago—just as the economy took a turn for the worse. McNamara's landscape business was stagnating, and he wanted to do something important and meaningful. Mabry had experience working on farms. When the Waldorf School acquired the property, it seemed like a natural fit. (The same man who developed biodynamic farming—Rudolf Steiner—also came up with the principles of Waldorf schools.)

"It became apparent pretty quickly that what we had decided to do by beginning a small farm was far more labor-intensive than I could've imagined and required a fuller commitment of time and energy than anything I've ever done in my life," McNamara said.

At the same time, the small-scale farm operation did not generate enough money to pay for workers. Through other farmers, the couple heard about an organization called WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and they joined "out of desperation," McNamara said.

"WWOOF has been a wonderful godsend to us. We have been gifted with about 35 individuals at this point who have passed through our lives in the close to two years that we've been involved," he said.

WOOOF began in 1971 in the United Kingdom as a way for people to get out to the countryside and help support the organic movement. What started as weekend trips have turned into longer stays at farms and smaller holdings around the world. Volunteers receive room, board and knowledge of organic farming in exchange for their work. Some see it as a way to travel and experience other cultures; others are hungry to learn about farming practices so they can grow their own food.

River Road Gardens has had volunteers from ages 18 to 63, although most are in their 20s.

Five WWOOFers currently volunteer at River Road Gardens, including Angela Willson and Peter Hochstedler, a married couple from Indiana.

Angela had been working to house homeless veterans, but they decided to move on to something new when the project ended.

Peter described working at River Road Gardens as "a little bit like going back to school, sort of, for free."

The couple started at River Road Gardens in January and plan to stay until May. They see their time here as an education in a setting they might not otherwise get to experience. They hope to eventually grow their own vegetables.

"We hope to have maybe a similar situation to Jon and Emily," Angela said, "potentially a CSA, but for sure a garden to grow a lot of our own food."

Working on a farm has given Angela a taste of a life that she believes better suits her. She said she likes the time for reflection and meditation that gardening provides.

"It's a more natural rhythm for me than working in an office," she said.

The importance of eating locally, Angela said, cannot be overemphasized.

"The idea that we have to buy oil from across the world in order to transport a tomato from Mexico to here—that's pretty fundamentally unnecessary, in my mind," she said.

She said people who aren't able to grow their own food should be supporting local farmers who can, because that's the best first step toward a healthier planet.

"Not everyone can be small farmers. Others can at least make it possible to get their food locally if they support farmers like Jon and Emily," Angela said.

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