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A moody gray sky brews over freshly mulched rows, shoulder-height sunflowers and flourishing tomato plants at Flagstaff Family Farm on a recent summer afternoon. The 10,000-square-foot plot is tucked behind the county’s cinder pits, just north of Old Route 66 in Rain Valley.

Husband and wife Tyler and Patty Allenbaugh are five months into the farming venture, becoming one of just a few farmers in the immediate Flagstaff area trying to make local agriculture a sustainable career.

There are five to six growers in Flagstaff and most are quite new, according to Heather Babbott, who runs the Flagstaff Community Markets. While these area locals still make up a just a quarter to a third of all producers at the markets, the number of farmers growing at 7,000 feet has increased over the years, Babbott wrote in an email. She attributed the trend to the existence of a viable community market where farmers can sell their produce, the retail outlet of Flagstaff CSA, local restaurants and the local food nonprofit FoodLink.

Flagstaff-area farmers, too, cited a robust demand for their goods and ample community support. At the same time though, they said it’s no simple task to create and then scale up their operations to meet the booming appetite for locally grown food.

They have to navigate between time and money constraints while also molding a farm that can succeed in northern Arizona’s arid, high elevation, anything-but-mild climate.

“We’re still trying to figure out if we can make a living,” said Rylan Morton-Starner matter-of-factly. Morton Starner and his wife own Forestdale Farm, a half-acre plot southeast of Little America.

Farming realities

Agriculture has a long history in Flagstaff. Historical records show the area’s farmers grew thousands of acres of crops including beans, wheat and potatoes in the early 1900s.

The recent surge of new farmers in Flagstaff likely has several driving factors, but one is cultural, said Pearl Low of Sweetwater Farm north of Flagstaff.

“These small gems of farms, it’s new because people are realizing how special and important it is for their families and their communities...that’s happening and it’s restarting,” Low said.

Low and other local producers said they are in a welcome position of having more requests for their produce than they can fulfill.

Flagstaff Family Farm, despite just getting off the ground, has already sold out of slots for weekly produce and egg shares, the Allenbaughs said. Tyler said there’s already a waiting list for the 20 shares the couple plans to offer next year.

Over the past few months, they’ve gauged that current and potential demand from residents and restaurants would support an expansion of another quarter acre beyond their 10,000 square foot plot.

But making that jump in scale means doing everything from building up soil to constructing an elk-proof fence, all of which take a major initial investment that’s out of reach right now, Patty said. The couple is quick to point out that even getting the farm to where it is now wouldn’t have been possible without donations of things like mulch and compost, county grants, free labor from family and hundreds of volunteer hours from organizations like the American Conservation Experience and Northern Arizona University students.

Thanks to the community involvement, Tyler said, the farm’s production has gone up by 100 percent this year.

Morton-Starner has seen the same strong community support and wealth of potential customers for his food but said it takes much more than just booming demand to propel the 5-year-old farm forward. His job involves a constant stream of management challenges -- deciding on the right mix of crops that grow well here but also sell well at the market, managing the rainwater catchments that provide all water for the farm or determining how to set his prices to be competitive but also cover the higher costs of growing in Flagstaff. And without the money to pay for extra help, Morton-Starner has to create a system that he can, for the most part, run by himself.

“With all our space we could grow three times what we do grow but I can’t build and plant that and sell it all with just me,” he said.

Finding the sweet spot

Despite the hurdles, there are many ways that local farms are making it work in Flagstaff. Morton-Starner is homing in on the best crops for Flagstaff’s climate and consumer tastes. Spinach, arugula and lettuce mix fill a niche, he said, while cauliflower may not make the cut next year. Low too, has decided to abandon the summer crops like peppers and cucumbers that are difficult to grow here, focusing instead on the root crops, dark leafy greens and herbs that can thrive. She saves seeds and, like many others in the area, uses greenhouses to extend the season.

Allenbaugh and Morton-Starner both use rainwater catchments and drip irrigation to make the most of water that’s available here and, to combat the area’s nutrient-poor soil, both practice a no-till strategy to build up rich soils year over year with help from compost.

The farmers are each pursuing different ways to best market their produce. Low said working with restauranteurs, who provide steady demand, has worked best for her, while the Allenbaughs said community supported agriculture shares will be their main source of income. Morton-Starner decided on selling only at the Flagstaff Community Market, saying it requires less overall planning and carries less pressure to produce a certain amount of variety for weekly customers

In the future, he’s looking at supplementing his income with farm tours or value-added products like herbal pharmacy products that his wife is already creating.

All of the producers emphasized the community’s strong backing of local agriculture as foundational for them to pursue growing produce in Flagstaff.

“We are becoming more of a farm because of (the) Flagstaff community and their desire for quality local food,” Low wrote in a follow up message. “As the demand for this is growing so are we.”

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Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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