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Wed, Sept. 18

Remodeling Eden<BR><i>Local farming prospers with use of old techniques </i>

The graphic shows the sharp decline in the amount of land under cultivation in Yavapai County since its peak in 1964.

Small grains and pasture make up most of the irrigated acreage in the county, which allows a small number of fruit and vegetable farmers, like Cavallari, to produce many products they sell directly to the public at farmers' markets and roadside stands.

The experimental 30-acre agro-ecology Wolfberry Farm in Chino Valley serves as an educational research-working program.

Prescott College student Shanti Leinow said the student base expanded to about 150 students, some of whom live on the premises in a straw-bale house – completely off the power grid but with a back-up power system.

This farm project works as a showcase for sustainable environment, explained graduate student and project manager Heather Houk.

The students who manage and study at Wolfberry Farm explore challenges such as water conservation and soil fertility, she said. They plant drought-tolerant crops, and use both new and ancient ways of growing food in this arid climate, Houk said.

Students also study the ecological landscape of agriculture and practice "making agriculture work for the environment instead of the other way around," Houk said.

This year marks Houk's second as the project manager and she explained that the students will plant cover crops with grasses, beans and other plants which "will return nutrients back in to the soil," she said.

"Whatever we do, we try to make it (soil) better," she said.

The farm will feature such staples as corn, beans and squash. Beans, or legumes, provide nutrients to the soil. Conversely, corn plants deplete everything and "do not give back to the soil," Houk said.

By planting beans alongside the corn, the soil receives nitrogen and replenishes the soil, much like the farming lessons learned by the ancient Southwestern Indian civilizations, she said.

Further, the farm uses insects instead of insecticides.

For example the students may apply parasitic wasps to corn crops susceptible to the corn earworm. The wasps lay their eggs on the corn earworm larvae and destroy the earworm eggs, thus preventing an outbreak.

Wolfberry Farm plays a large role in the Prescott College Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA).

The CSA works as "an alternative social and economic arrangement to conventional industrial food production," says the project literature.

This project supports local, sustainable agriculture and shares of the harvest are equally distributed within the community.

Houk explained that CSAs originated in Japan about 30 years ago with the mission of a community buying all of its food from one farmer and providing for that farmer's needs to increase productivity.

"It's a way for small farms to stay in business," Houk said.

Among the most important topics the Wolfberry farmers study is erosion.

Water run-off, wind, rainfall and plant harvesting all contribute to soil erosion. The range management specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service explained that even the Prescott area suffers from some degree of these types of soil erosion.

Bob Adams said that a single raindrop hitting the bare ground will move a particle of soil.

If that soil covers a sloped area, the potential for erosion gets higher.

Therefore, when farmers talk about cover, they mean vegetation or plants that prevent erosion.

Farm irrigation also causes erosion, Adams said.

In addition, when farmers harvest a crop, they must then prepare the field for another growing season and very often that field remains bare for a time, until the next planting. That allows gusts of wind to carry the precious dirt away.

These days many farmers "leave something on the ground," he said meaning, with improved technology, farmers can plant their fields in a ground cover and minimize erosion.

"We're aware that soil is the most important thing, as far as resources," Adams said. "If you don't have the soil, you don't have anything."

Contact Briana Lonas at blonas@prescott az.com

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