We hear a lot about food deserts these days, areas that are underserved by grocery stores, but what about growing food in the desert? A real desert. Like Arizona. When I was giving a presentation on food security recently at Simon Fraser University for a course in social sustainability, one of the students was from Arizona. She asked how they could be food secure in Arizona. I gave her the usual answers, grow your own food – organic gardening would be best, because the method minimizes water usage through a variety of techniques, mulching, cover cropping, intensive planting, etc. You’d have to use raised beds, bring in the soil because the arid land would not allow for deep rooting. I also thought greenhouses, particularly the closed loop systems now in use could work there, at least in the cooler months. Will Allen of Growing Power in Milwaukee, farms fish in greenhouses, the water from the pond is used to irrigate and the fish poo fertilizes the plants.
The indigenous population would also be a great resource, native crops would be well adapted to the climate and soil conditions. Mesquite, for example, is an extremely hardy, drought-tolerant plant, the bean pods can be dried and ground into gluten free flour. Many of the cacti, like agave and prickly pear can be used for juices. It would be important too, to know how to can, preserve and dry foods from the region and have a sharing network with friends and neighbours.
I decided to do some research on the topic, to learn more about food in the desert. My friend who spends a lot of time in Arizona was telling me about a garden she saw there one year, a hoop house, fashioned with mesquite posts with heavy mesh material used for the roof and walls. It was winter, the best season for growing and the hoop house was bursting with tomatoes, cucumbers and squash. With the intensely hot sun in the summer, growing is probably a little trickier.
At the Community Food Resource Center in Tuscon, they offer desert gardening classes and chicken keeping courses at their Nuestra Tierra Demonstration and Market Garden. The desert food hub offers a variety of programming including child nutrition, a community kitchen, houses a food bank and has a great list of resources on its web site.
Just by googling around, I found a five-star restaurant at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort in Phoenix that specializes in native foods, many of which are grown on a nearby reservation. I learned there are locally produced foods and wine in Arizona too. Olives and olive oil, citrus fruits, pecans and honey. One blogger wrote about the mesquite honey from hives near Flagstaff. There are jams, like peach spiced up with habanero chiles, salsas, and relishes too. And speaking of spicy, the Ranch market in Phoenix offers fresh, authentic Mexican foods and Aguas Frescas, traditional Hispanic beverages made from scratch daily.
My research efforts were as shallow as the desert soil, but my early conclusion is that you can still be food secure in the desert. You just have to tap in to the right people, and Google.