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12:41 PM Sun, Sept. 23rd

Labor of love Farming is more than a livelihood for Chino, Paulden growers

CHINO VALLEY – Farmers here and in Paulden offer an alternative to large-scale corporate agriculture.

They tend small family farms in which they raise many specialty crops, use organic fertilizer and pesticides, and do a lot of work by hand. They sell their fruits, vegetables and other products at farmers markets, at stands on their property, to agriculture co-ops, to specialty stores or combinations thereof.

They grow crops such as beets, carrots, chilis, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, lettuce, okra, onions, pumpkins, squash, sunflowers, tomatillos (used for making salsa), tomatoes and turnips.

“Everybody is pretty much growing the same thing,” said Jeff Sawyer, who co-owns Granite Mountain Farm in Chino Valley with his wife, Amy. “I tend to grow root crops. I just found we are successful in growing and selling them.”

Sawyer – part owner of a company that builds water and sewer treatment plants and does environmental cleanups – is among several growers who farm part time.

“When people ask me, I tell them it (farming) is my Zen time,” Sawyer said. “I don’t do this for a living.”

By contrast, Cory Rade, his daughter, Gibson, and his fiancée Shanti Leinow of Whipstone Farm in Paulden, and Carol Bigham and daughter Sunshine Reilly of Burnin’ Daylight Farm in Chino Valley farm for a living,

And whether full time or backyard farmers, they are surviving, if not thriving.

Rade and other farmers see population growth as a mixed blessing. While the urbanization fuels increases in land values and puts pressure on farmers to sell, the arrival of affluent baby boomers also creates a market for the farmers.

A chimney sweep for 28 years who still sweeps chimneys on occasion, Rade said he has farmed in the Paulden area for a decade. Leinow, who earned a bachelor’s degree in agro-ecology from Prescott College, said she has been a farmer for 10 years, half of them in the Paulden area.

The couple now tends about 6.5 acres on their Paulden property and about 1.5 acres of leased land off Highway 89 south of Perkinsville Road.

Leinow and Rade talked about their livelihoods over a late lunch of hot dogs wrapped in bacon at their home. They are former vegetarians who now raise farm animals such as cattle and pigs for their own source of food – not for sale.

“If you work very hard, sometimes you need more than vegetables” for nourishment, Rade said.

Rade and Leinow now work 10 to 15 hours a day, Leinow said. She added that they hire seasonal employees who do not stick around because the work is hard and pays little.

Sunshine Reilly concurred.

“You don’t have a day off, and it (farming) is very labor-intensive,” Reilly said.

The farmers cultivate both warm-weather and winter crops, which have a longer growing season.

For instance, radishes have the shortest time from planting to harvest of 21 days, Leinow said. By contrast, Rade said onions and leeks take six months.

And asparagus takes two years before it is ready for harvest because it has to build up a root system, Leinow said.

Leinow and Rade plant crops such as eggplant, onions, peppers and tomatoes in January inside a greenhouse. They transplant cold-weather crops outdoors by late March and warm-weather crops by the end of May or early June.

They do most of the planting and all of the harvesting by hand, as well as use their hands to remove weeds.

Leinow, Rade and the other farmers use natural fertilizers such as compost, kitchen scraps and manure.

However, Granite Creek Vineyards Inc. in Chino Valley is apparently the only local grower that meets the certified organic label, according to owner/winemaker Kit Hoult. He said the U.S. Department of Agriculture and California Certified Organic Farmers certified the winery, which has been in business since 1974.

“We hand-make all our wine with organic grapes, sulfite-free,” Hoult said. He added that the winery also grows cucumbers, hot and sweet peppers, okra, potatoes, tomatoes “and everything else that grows in Chino” on an “intensely planted” half acre.

While the other growers lack the organic label, they said that they use beneficial insects, farm animals or other natural measures to control pests such as blister beetles and aphids. Whipstone Farm and other farms use pyrethrin, derived from the chrysanthemum flower, for pest contol.

Reilly said guinea fowl raised on her nine-acre farm eat insects and weeds, and geese devour grasshoppers and weeds. She also squashes bugs with her hands.

Sawyer, who had no previous farming experience before opening Granite Mountain Farm on a half-acre nine years ago, resigned himself to pest damage.

“You have to plant enough to feed the pests and yourself,” he said.

Whatever crops survive pests and cold spells are ready to harvest. Harvesting for Whipstone coincides with the May-October schedule for the farmers markets in Prescott, Chino Valley and Flagstaff.

“The challenge is that it takes time to market,” Leinow said. “We spend three days a week away from the farm” marketing. Leinow said that she and Rade pick produce for their community-supported agriculture cooperative on Tuesdays, for the Chino Valley farmers market on Wednesdays, for the Prescott market on Friday and for the Flagstaff market on Saturday.

Farmers markets enable Rade, Leinow and the other growers to get to know their customers. They even offer advice on preparing food.

“They (customers) want their food to look perfect,” Reilly said. “We want it to look perfect, and we want it cheap.”

Reilly, who lives in Prescott and owns the Chino Valley farm, said she wants to see more farms spring up in Chino Valley. Meanwhile, the Collier family is selling its pumpkin farm on Road 5 North.

“It’s more competitive,” she said. “There is plenty to go around. We sell out by 10 o’clock (at the Prescott Farmers Market).

“I’d love to grow more. I just don’t have the time or energy,” said Reilly, a mother of a 16.5-month-old boy, Rowan.

Contact the reporter at khedler@prescottaz.com