By: Kate Seybold, ASU Food Systems graduate student.
Aguiar Farm is owned and operated by Fernando Aguiar and his family. Originally from Mexico, Fernando grew up on a farm and learned the trade working alongside his father and grandfather. After moving to the United States in 1981, Fernando worked in construction for 10 years before returning to his agricultural roots and starting Aguiar Farm in Paulden, AZ. Today, Aguiar Farm sells direct-to-consumer at farmers markets, such as the Prescott Farmers Market. They also sell to restaurants and other wholesale customers via Sun Produce Cooperative, a Phoenix-based organization dedicated to creating market access and alternative distribution channels for Arizona’s small-scale producers.
Even in December, when production was slow, the farm was a scene of diversification. Fernando and his daughter, Blanca, led our group through a field of parsnips almost ready for harvest and carefully pulled back row covers to expose lush rows of carrots and beets. We walked past hens and turkeys (and one vibrantly colored peacock) and a shed where garlic was hung to dry. Fernando showed us his hoop houses that provide season extensions for specific crops and his new greenhouse, which he built himself with heated pipes in the floor, to start his own plants. When we left, Fernando’s daughter passed out their newest farm product—tea bags filled with dried herbs grown on the farm. It was clear that Fernando has been very intentional and innovative in building a variety of markets and sources of farm income, as well as on-farm efficiencies and cost-savings. At one point I asked Fernando how he found time to do everything and he just laughed…the life of a farmer.
Fernando started Aguiar Farm with many years of farming experience in Mexico, but it has taken many years of hard work to establish and grow his farm—starting with his soil. When asked how farming in Arizona compared to Mexico, Fernando chuckled and shook his head, “It’s very different.” The light sandy soil of Aguiar Farm is nothing like the dark, rich soil he used to farm in Mexico—from what it can grow (“I just can’t grow sweet potatoes here!”) to how it needs to be managed. It is quickly evident when talking to Fernando that his farming philosophy starts and ends with good soil quality. He applies compost and manure (including manure from the farm’s own chickens), and no pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic chemicals of any kind are ever sprayed on his fields. He rotates crops each year, and before putting a new piece of land into production, Fernando takes three years to first prep the soil.
When asked about the greatest challenges he’s currently facing as a farmer, Fernando immediately replied “weeds and rain,” but then added “labor” to the list and explained how challenging it has been to find employees to help on the farm. This was not surprising to hear given the national labor shortages that have been affecting the agricultural industry (and most industries) over the past year. But on a small farm like Fernando’s, difficulty finding labor means the difference of having one or two employees versus none. Fernando recently bought a new piece of land that he plans to farm. But without additional labor, he can’t expand production. Instead, he plans to use his new land to expand crop rotations and allow some of his land to lay fallow for soil regeneration.
Fernando spoke to another important challenge that many Arizona farms are experiencing: development. During our Immersive Week in Arizona, our group heard from multiple farmers about the pressure that development is putting on farmland in Arizona, particularly in Maricopa County. But even in Yavapai County, Fernando is experiencing development pressure. He has received multiple offers to sell his land to developers for a mobile home community. Fernando is in a position where he can decline these offers. He views his land as not only his livelihood, but also his family legacy—something that he can hopefully someday pass on to his grandsons. But not all farmers can decline such offers, especially if they don’t own the land they farm.
I left Aguiar Farm feeling inspired. Small farms like Aguiar Farms shine a beam of light on the future of sustainable, community-based agriculture in America. But in a year where I’ve personally seen multiple small farms make the difficult decision to stop farming due to labor challenges and loss of markets, I also left Aguiar Farm feeling reminded of why I enrolled in ASU’s Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. How can public policy help to ensure that Aguiar Farm, and the other small farms, thrive and have opportunities to grow? How can we support Fernando’s dream of passing down Aguiar Farm to his grandchildren?
The difference in size between small and large farms in modern America is vast—and growing. According to USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service data from 2020, the average farm size in the United States is 444 acres and the average in the state of Arizona is three times the national average. These numbers have been increasing over time, while the number of farmers decreases. Our group heard these statistics reinforced when we visited a dairy farmer during our Immersive Week and the farmer predicted that dairy farms will only continue to consolidate into fewer, larger operations over time. However, despite these trends, we can’t overlook small-scale farmers like Fernando who are working tirelessly to sustain their businesses and feed communities. It’s important that agricultural policy is responsive to the needs of our farms, from the smallest to the largest, and the communities they feed.
This blog is part of a series from the December 2021 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.