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From left, Carlos Ibarra Sr., Ak-Chin Councilmember Ann Marie Antone and Carlos Ibarra Jr. show off seed packets at the groundbreaking for Ibarra Family Farms at the Santa Cruz Commerce Center. Photo by Michelle Chance

The Ak-Chin Indian Community has deep roots in traditional agriculture. In July, it welcomed a new kind of agribusiness to its enterprise – hydroponics.

Ibarra Family Farms recently broke ground on a 1.2-acre parcel at Santa Cruz Commerce Center and hopes to be ready for production before January.

“Although it’s different technology, we are longtime farmers, and this is going to work out perfect together,” said Ak-Chin Tribal Council Member Ann Marie Antone during a groundbreaking ceremony July 19.

Hydroponics is a soilless cultivation that utilizes recycled nutrient solution to grow small crops. Ibarra Family Farms estimates it will save up to 95 percent of traditional water usage, pumped from underground Ak-Chin water.

Owner Carlos Ibarra, his wife, sons and daughter will operate their future 16,128-square-foot greenhouse that is unlike any other in the country.

“What I did with this and the design is I adapted everything, technologies from different parts of the world, and I’m trying to adapt it to Arizona weather conditions,” Ibarra said.

The greenhouse will be lower in height than traditional structures. A motor-operated weather station will open and close the roof automatically, depending on weather conditions.

The cosmopolitan operation will include hydroponic channels from Brazil, a Canadian greenhouse and various equipment from the United States.

Ibarra is a third-generation farmer with previous operations in Mexico spanning more than 25 years, growing a variety of crops from sugarcane to soy beans. His latest project will produce organically and conventionally grown lettuce, kale and spinach year-round, thanks to the adapted greenhouse design.

Ibarra’s son Carlos Ibarra Jr. will take up marketing for the Maricopa location. He hopes to bring a fresh perspective to the farm’s philosophy as the next Ibarra generation to cultivate the family business.

“It’s also good to have the best of both worlds; the older generation and our new generation, in a more sustainable way, a greener way,” Ibarra Jr. said.

As the farm grows, Ibarra Jr. would like to explore solar power options to its greenhouse and include sustainable friendly packaging and labeling for its produce.

Phase 2 of the project could see new crops including edible flowers and other vegetables.

Maria Hernandez, vice chair of the Ak-Chin Industrial Park Board, said the Ibarra Family Farms project has been two years in the making. She views the operation as the beginning of what’s next in the local agro-industry.

“We’re a farming community, but this is a different aspect of farming where we are getting into more of what’s in the future: Hydroponics,” Hernandez said. “It was kind of exciting because this is what we always wanted this area to be: More agribusiness type.”

This story appears in the August issue of InMaricopa.

Rick Brower works with guayule at Beem Biologics as operations manager. Photo by Mason Callejas

By Fran Lyons

Guayule (gwa yoo lee). Not a well-known word. If you haven’t heard it before, you probably will, especially if you live in Maricopa.

Guayule is a silver-leaved shrub of the daisy family indigenous to the southwestern United States and Mexico. It grows locally.

It was cultivated in the early 20th century by industry and investment pioneers such as Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller for its promise to produce rubber. The sap of the plant yielded a high volume of latex that produced a rubber compound.

It served a multitude of applications including the World War II effort led by Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was a colonel in the Army in a study of guayule as an alternative to rubber.

Fast-forward to 2014. Lance Beem, a plant physiologist working at the University of California-Davis, conducted trials on the guayule plant for its potential to increase crop growth. He found he was really onto something significant and far-reaching.

He discovered he could extract from the guayule plant a property that would increase crop yield to growers. It is called ISO NPK. It’s a bio fertilizer. It is naturally sourced, non-toxic and certified organic.

Photo by Mason Callejas

Chief Operations Officer Ben Cloud said ISO NPK offers one of the most potent fertility products on the market. “We call it ‘giving your crops wings.’ Plants actually respond to an application with rising branches and leaves for a physically visible response.”

Events shaped rapidly from this discovery. Beem Biologics was established in 2014. Four founding members – CEO/Chairman Stephen Butler, PhD, COO Ben Cloud, Director Lance Beem and Director Rodolfo Manzone, PhD – came on board with experience and expert skills to develop a new product with great possibility.

Ben Cloud. Photo by Mason Callejas

Development continued with the founders opening a facility in Maricopa, a rich, agricultural resource area that has the guayule shrub growing in abundance. Research and development continues at UC-Davis.

The purpose became clear to the founders: “Develop and supply biological compounds that are naturally derived and sustainable for use in growing crops.”

Beem Biologics has entered a licensing agreement with one of the largest crop protection industries in the world – Arysta LifeScience – and has conducted successful, broad-spectrum field trials of ISO NPK.

“Our mission is to become a premium provider of breakthrough biological technologies throughout the world,” Cloud said. “The impetus for this shift is the awareness of the agriculture industry and communities at large, to see the opportunity and benefit of using naturally derived compounds. They are safe, economical and highly effective in increasing crop yield for growers.”

Biological compounds, or AG biologicals, provide many of the answers that face the chemical crop industry.

“At Beem Biologicals, we intend to advance ‘Healthy Soil, Healthy Food and a Healthy Planet, based on science,’” Cloud said.

Beem Biologics currently has an inventory that would provide product to 1 million acres. Beginning in 2019, marketing will expand and the projected growth will be 10 million acres of product coverage to meet market demands over the next five years, according to its business plan.

Rick Brower is the operations manager. He is an Arizona native who has lived in Maricopa since 1988.

“I have been working with the potential of the guayule shrub for 10 years, and I am really excited to be here in Maricopa at this amazing time to hit the ground running,” he said. “Our timing is right to move away from conventional chemical products that deplete the soil to a non-toxic, organic product that revitalizes and enhances crops.”

This story appears in the July issue of InMaricopa.

Mark Smith (wearing red rose), formerly of Maricopa, received UofA's Lifetime Achievement Award last month, 19 years after his father John Smith (in red tie), who still lives in Maricopa, received the same award. Submitted photo

Maricopa farming pioneer John Smith and his son Mark are familiar with cultivating growth in their agricultural communities.

John farmed cotton and other crops here since the early 1950s, and Mark is president of Smith Farms Company of Yuma Inc.

Together, they share more than blood and green thumbs.

In 1998, John Smith received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Nineteen years later, Mark Smith received it, too.

On May 5, the family traveled to Tucson to honor Mark’s achievement during an awards ceremony held at the college.

A representative from the university said John and Mark are the first father and son combination to be awarded the distinction.

Unsurprisingly, his son’s accomplishment makes John Smith happy, but he said it also makes him proud of Maricopa High School.

According to a biography provided by the U of A, Mark was one of the first graduates of the agricultural business curriculum offered by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at U of A. He received a Bachelor of Science from the school in Agronomy and Plant Genetics and Agricultural Business in 1977.

But before that, he was a graduate of MHS.

“Maricopa had a pretty good little school system at the time,” John said. “Having a school system that small was not a thing that most people thought they could get their kids educated in, but they could here.”

John Smith shows the award he received from U of A in 1998. He has been involved in Maricopa agriculture since the 1950s. Photo by Michelle Chance

Smith Farms Genesis in Cotton Country

John himself is no stranger to reaping the benefits from the seeds he sowed in Maricopa, or as he remembers the town in the 1950s, “cotton country.”

“(Back then) there were 16 or 17 cotton gins in the west end of Pinal County, and today there may be one, may be two,” John said.

After graduating from U of A with a B.S. in Business in 1950, he took a job as a foreman on a cotton farm west of Maricopa.

Not only was John the boss, but he also did most of the work.

“There wasn’t anybody out there then to help,” he said. So he had to do a little extra.

A few years later in 1953, he bought farmland in Maricopa with partner Fred Enke.

During their first growing season, Smith said he and Enke labored in the fields themselves, irrigating, weeding and driving tractors.

When the work was finished, Enke would return to a different field – the football field.

Smith said Enke played for professional football teams in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit.

“You don’t see many pro quarterbacks going to work out there chopping weeds,” Smith said. “Not any I know, anyhow.”

Enke was the exception.

Smith Homestead Survives Development

As the farm grew, so did necessity. John and his wife Mary Lou needed a house near the farm.

“There were no places to live in Maricopa,” John said.

So, in the mid-1950s, the couple built a house in the middle of farmland in what is now The Villages subdivision.

Today the sprawling ranch-style home, with its tall, mature trees is an icon of heritage, as well as a portrait of defiance inside the neighborhood of much newer homes.

When developers began eyeing Maricopa for housing growth in the early 2000s, the Smiths fought to keep their property.

Eventually, John sold most of his farmland in the newly incorporated city, but he and Mary Lou held onto the homestead.

“I just told them ‘We’re not going to move. If you want to buy the land, well the house is going to stay and we’re going to stay in it,’” Smith recalled telling developers.

His loyalty to the land might have something to do with the years he worked to develop it through various boards.

According to another biography provided by the U of A, “He was a member of the Site Selection committee appointed by the Board of Regents to locate a new research farm after the College of Agriculture was instructed to close (two other centers).”

The location of the new research farm Smith helped to select? The Maricopa Agricultural Center.

His work didn’t stop there. Smith also served 27 years as president on the board of directors of the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District.

The biography supplied by the college also highlights Smith’s work in “negotiations for the implementation of the Central Arizona Project and the delivery and distribution of Colorado River water.”

Not one to take all the credit, Smith said his accomplishments were a “collective effort.”

The lineage of agriculturalists does not stop with Mark. His brothers Jim and Matt own a turf farm in Maricopa named Southwest Sod.

“I think it’s wonderful. I’m very proud of all of them,” Mary Lou Smith said of her husband and children.

Maricopa Farmers Adapt

Eventually, the Smith-Enke farming empire expanded so much the partners split.

“We had plenty of land and plenty of equipment for both of us,” John Smith said. “We didn’t even have a lawyer to write it up; we just wrote it out on a piece of paper and it still stood.”

Smith Farms grew to include not only cotton, but a vast pecan orchard, as well as grain and alfalfa crops.

Smith still owns and leases farmland in California, but he said his responsibilities nowadays are mostly to himself.

Sitting inside their home that once stood surrounded by cotton, John and Mary Lou Smith discussed the change in life they’ve experienced throughout Maricopa’s growing pains.

“Everything always looks better looking back,” John Smith said.

And even now, surrounded by houses instead of crops, one thing is for certain: The Smiths are here to stay.