Interview with Frank by Nina our Ajo CSA Coordinator
Why are you a farmer? Farmer Frank has always thought of himself as a farmer, even when he only had a garden. He enjoys farming tremendously, and for many reasons. Seeds, for example, have enchanted him since he was a very little boy. He finds them magical: here is this small thing, hard but alive, you put it in the ground and you get food. The incredible thing is their size – he puts a few seeds in the palm of his hand, where they almost disappear and look like black dots, and says that there are 12 seeds here, and they will produce 12 heads of cabbage, so they go from this tiny thing to 60 pounds of food. “Not even David Copperfield can perform that kind of magic,” says Frank.
Where does the name Crooked Sky Farms come from? When he decided to start farming in 1999, he was once visiting Arivaca, AZ. As he was driving around, he took a dirt side road called Crooked Sky Road, and when he came to the end there was a man chopping weeds. He asked him about the name of the road. The man explained that it comes from Indians (Pima and Papagos) who used to live here, because when you look at the sky along the rugged mountain range there, it appears crooked. That sounded good to him, so he took the name for his operation.
Where do you grow our food, and why? The farmland on the fringes of Phoenix is really fragmented now, so he is leasing 4 different locations in urban Phoenix, ranging from 10 to 40 acres. He also has a property in Duncan, AZ, on the Arizona-New Mexico border, and just recently bought in Virden, NM, 3 miles away. These two properties lie at 3600 feet in the Gila River Valley, where the climate is different, and can thus grow things like chile and bell peppers much easier than here in the valley. He has 15 people that work for him all told. He says good help is really hard to find because it is hard physical work, and you have to work Monday to Friday all year around, except a week between Christmas and New Year. It is not easy to find people who are also interested in working on the farm, since Frank believes that you have to put your heart in it, just like with any other thing you want to succeed in.
Why did you decide to grow things naturally? He grew up in Phoenix, in a really poor family in a house with no running water or electricity; his father worked on farms that used a lot of chemicals and was a very sick man; when his father died, the doctor said he did not die just of any particular thing but because there was so much “garbage” in his body. Frank understood from a very early age that chemicals are not good for you – his father was working in cotton fields, and back then they did not let workers leave the fields when the crop dusters came; they only put a sleeve to their nose for the time when the plane was above them, and then went back to work. At that time they did not fully understand the dangers of chemicals. Frank too was sickly when he was young. He would always throw up when the crop dusters came, and his father was concerned because the hard-earned food was being thrown away (when he threw up). So from very early on he saw that the only way to go was without chemicals. As a young boy he read his mother’s Organic Gardening magazines, where he learned (among other things) about composting. Frank says that most people who did organic gardening or farming in the 60s were considered to be crazy hippies, but he understood from being around chemicals and watching people get sick that growing naturally is the only way. “If you spray bugs with poison, they will die, but you will eat that too,” he says. “Growing natrally means a different kind of thinking; things need to happen in one natural circle, and we are all in the same circle, bugs, plants, us.” With this kind of thinking, it does not matter to Frank even if the bugs are killed with legal organics (pesticides allowed in certified organic farming); they are still taken out of the circle. Copper sulfites, for example, are considered legal on a registered organic farm, but once they are sprayed, they enter the water system, go back into the rivers etc., and something will eventually pick them up, either fish and turtles in the Gila River or humans, so it just can’t be good to grow perfect carrots, but kill something along the way. He believes in stewardship of the land, where you take care of the land, plants, animals and people.
How can you grow produce without any chemicals? The key to growing things naturally is observation. On one of Frank’s first farms, people used to spray a lot; when he took the farm over he was told that he wouldn’t be able to grow there without using pesticides because of the heavy infestation of army worms that mostly attack beets. He went ahead and grew his first beets, which had worm rings around them. He tried to sell them as “pesticide free” but as he says, ―people still buy with their eyes,‖ and want their veggies to look good, so he decided to abandon the beets, and ordered his man to disk-till the soil. Once the disking was done, Frank noticed that thousands of birds suddenly flew in and started eating the worms. He left the field disked overnight, and repeated the disking and resting it a few more times, and eventually the army worms were gone. ―You try to observe what is going on,‖ says Frank. He also selects his plants with an eye to sustaining healthy soil and helpful fauna, for example ladybugs, which are known for eating the ―bad guys‖ (although few people know that they only do that in their larval stage and not when they mature). Now, Frank says, ―you can go and buy buckets of ladybugs at places like Home Depot, but you can’t actually buy ladybugs, you can only rent them – ladybugs are like homing pigeons, they will always return to where they were hatched, or at least try to, so they will leave your garden as soon as you release them if there is no reason for them to stay. You can buy ladybug eggs on a piece of paper, and hatch them in your garden, but then you have to provide food for them to stay. The nectar of certain types of plants is what keeps them put—arugula, dill, mustard—and that’s why he not only plants certain things but also lets them go to seed in the field, so that the adult ladybugs can feed, and therefore stay. ―You see, there is a method to our madness,‖ he says with a smile.
Why do you farm in urban Phoenix, in the industrial part and near the Interstate? The main reason is that there is simply not a lot of farmland left around Phoenix. Most of it was sold to agribusiness and developers in the 90s. The central location [where we do our weekly pick-ups] has been farmed at least since the introduction of the Salt River Project in 1918-1920, but probably goes all the way back to Native Americans. This farm used to be bigger too; the interstate only came in the 70s. The most important thing in his choice to farm here was that it is here, and when farmers stop farming land, it ceases to exist as farmland.
What is his biggest pest problem? In spring, aphids appear and last a few weeks, then are gone; they attack plants as they weaken, such as kale going to the end, so he lets them take such plants and just stops harvesting them, and then the ladybugs come in and eat the aphids. Everything has its purpose, he adds.
Where does he get his seeds? He gets the majority of his seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and the Baker Creek Company (rareseeds.com), which sells rare, open-pollinated seeds. Heirlooms are now gaining in popularity as people understand why they are better, and they also have fascinating histories, so he also grows some varieties such as the Cushaw Squash. He also saves seeds and plants them.
Does he sell at farmers markets? Yes, you can find Crooked Sky Farms products at 3 different markets in Phoenix. He accepts WIC-USDA vouchers, but only at farmer’s markets.
What does he do to enrich his soil? He makes some of his own compost, but he can’t make enough, so he also buys organic compost from a local dairy farm. He also takes care of his soil with what he plants; for example, he plants wheat (remember those wheatberries?) which creates a mat of roots underneath the ground, which adds humus to the soil. Another example is planting legumes, which fix nitrogen in the soil.
Does he have any bees? Bees come to his farm naturally, since he grows things for them; he only really needs bees in the summertime to pollinate plants like squash, cucumber etc. and he grows sunflowers to attract them even more.