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Cultivating Gardeners and Urban Farmers

In recognition of the 100-year anniversary of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative Extension, we are spotlighting a series of programs that UA employees, students and volunteers facilitate around the state.

A half-acre farm has sprouted up on a vacant lot across from the light-rail station in the heart of the nation’s sixth largest city, Phoenix.

The Phoenix Urban Research Farm is where urbanites – a generation or two removed from agrarian life – go to learn how to garden or even how to start a small farm business.

The farm, which is helping to meet the increasing demand for locally grown food, is managed by faculty at the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension, part of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

"You can't just plant on a vacant lot and expect it to grow," said Haley Paul, an urban agricultural assistant. "We're educating people on how to grow food in the low desert."

Volunteers have turned the sunbaked lot – vacant for 20 years – into a productive research farm, which is part of a 15-acre urban revitalization project, a partnership of Keep Phoenix Beautiful and landowner Barron Collier Companies.

The first step was planting cover crops of rye, peas and turnips in the hard-packed caliche, a type of sedimentary rock.

"Turnips are amazing at breaking up the soil and crowding out competing weeds," Paul said. "Those crops were plowed under to further condition the soil. We spent many hours of volunteer service to get these beds ready for summer crops."

The next step is recruiting more volunteers for the harvest.

"In community gardens, the art of cultivating people is as important as cultivating crops," Paul said.

Another example of how the research farm is advancing urban farms has been through the UA Master Farmer Program, which trains beginning farmers.

The program began in October 2013 with 20 people involved in its 13-week series, which included a 20-hour internship working on a farm, said Kelly Murray Young, a horticulture agent with Maricopa County Cooperative Extension who developed the program. Another series was held in February with nearly 20 people. Another training is planned for the fall.

Participants study soil, irrigation and specialty crops – plus food safety, permits, marketing and risk management – then write a business plan.

Urban farming has generated a lot of interest, Young said. "We get calls every week: 'I want to start a farm. What do I need to know?'"

A two-day exploratory workshop, "Turning Dreams Into Reality: Starting a Farm in Arizona," will be held May 20-21 in Phoenix. The workshop introduces prospective new farmers and ranchers to the rewards and challenges of starting an agricultural operation. The workshop costs $105 for those who register before May 2. Registration is available online.

Contact: Kelly Murray Young, a horticulture agent with Maricopa County Cooperative Extension, at 602-827-8219 or kyoung@arizona.edu.

To learn more about Cooperative Extension programs, read: