From left, MAC Superintendent Greg Main, Master Gardener Dave Brady, SNAP-Ed Instructional Specialist Carol Diemer and County Extension Director Edward Martin discuss the possibilities of a small-acreage farming program for new growers. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

So, you want to be a farmer?

IF YOU GO
What: Small-Acreage Farming Opportunity
When: Oct. 25, 8:30 a.m.
Where: Maricopa Agricultural Center, 37860 W. Smith-Enke Road
Info: http://cals-mac.arizona.edu/ 

The local Cooperative Extension wants to help, and even has plots to get you started. A meeting is planned Oct. 25 at the Maricopa Agricultural Center for those interested in learning more.

“It’s kind of an exploratory meeting to find out who’s interested,” said Edward Martin, director of the county extension. “We know that we’ve got folks in Maricopa County that are looking for land to rent and looking for information and education. We know we’ve got folks in Pinal County and in the town of Maricopa itself that are looking for the same type of information.”

The University of Arizona office at the MAC has long had programs to help people learn to grow plants in Arizona – prepare the soil, plot a garden, plant the right plants, water and fertilize, control pests, harvest and even market. Now, they are combining forces to create a seed-to-sale program that takes new farmers all the way through the process, on their own land or land they have rented.

“This our attempt to make it more cohesive program that’s available to all folks, and kind of a sustainable program so we have a place where folks can come and learn about small-acreage farming, learn about the different things it takes to raise crops and raise produce and things like that,” Martin said.

The Small-Acreage Farming program is aimed at turning wannabe farmers into useful growers.

Master Gardener Dave Brady of Maricopa approached the Extension Office with the idea of expanding gardening workshops into something more sustainable. He had a personal reason for it.

“As a small grower, the only options that were open to me were direct marketing, which was either going to a farmer’s market, setting up a farm stand in front of my place or doing a weekly sale they call CSA, community supported agriculture,” Brady said. “I was doing the farmer’s markets and exploring the CSAs, but it would take a day to a day and a half to get set up, do the harvesting, get all the stuff loaded up, iced down, cleaned up, take it to the farmer’s market, do the farmer’s market, put it back in the car, drive back home, get the stuff out. Generally, you’re going to bring back 20-30 percent of what you took. So, it was a real frustrating thing for me.”

Wholesale was intriguing, especially the idea of selling straight to restaurants and schools, but that required special certification. Brady and other small growers went through that process and discovered they had a lot of fun together. They ended up creating their own co-op with processors and distributors and are now focused on school food programs. They are growing on plots of less than an acre up to 40 acres.

“We came to the realization there’s no way we can grow enough to meet our current demand,” he said. “So, we really need more farmers.”

That means finding those individuals in Pinal and Maricopa counties who want to learn how to farm on small acreage or at least expand their knowledge.

The program will combine classroom work and agricultural theory with practical work in the garden. When new farmers have their own acreage producing, they can continue to come to the instructors rather than waiting for the next workshop. As part of the UofA team, MAC is able to call on the college experts to answer questions that crop up alongside the crops.

“The good thing about this is, if they have a problem, there are resources right there for them,” said Carol Diemer, an instructional specialist for SNAP-Ed, part of the UofA Cooperative Extension.

The Natural Resources Conservation Services, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will be part of the program. Martin said they will talk about programs they have for land owners, especially regarding high tunnels (hoop houses).

“There might be people who already own land and are looking for ways they might be able to use that land to produce,” Martin said. “So, they might be able to get some assistance from NRCS.”

Greg Main, superintendent of MAC, said participants can use MAC start to finish on the land available there. The smallest plots are 26-by-34 feet.

“It’s a small area we’re starting out with, and we can grow from them,” Main said.

The program involves serious work and not magical gardening abilities, and they want to make sure participants are realistic in their expectations.

Martin said the Extension has would-be growers who come to them saying they want to plant an acre. “And we say, ‘Whoa, whoa, I’ll tell you what. Pick one of these little plots out here and plant something and let’s see how it goes.’ It’s not as easy as many people think. There’s a lot that’s involved.”

He said the new program will be a way for new farmers to get their feet wet before jumping into something that might be over their heads.

If new farmers go through the program and get certified, Brady said, “We can sell anything they grow; I guarantee it.”

Diemer said SNAP-Ed also teaches about the nutrition aspect of gardening – “Getting that food directly from the soil into a plant and back into your body, and providing those ready resources for you.”

The Small-Acreage Farming planning meeting is 8:30 a.m. to noon at MAC, 37860 W. Smith-Enke Road.

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