Meet Sarah Brown, First Generation Farmer
ALWT interviewed Sarah Brown by phone on June 18, 2021 at 1:30 pm. The outside temperature was hovering at 115 degrees in the urban garden where she was working near I-10 and Speedway. Midway through the interview Sarah’s cell phone got so overheated it disconnected our call. We finished the interview once her phone cooled down enough and then she got right back to work.
In 2011, during her sophomore year at the University of Oregon, Sarah Brown enrolled in Urban Farming. The class solidified her future as a farmer. “I decided I’d rather be outside with my hands in the dirt than in a classroom or at a desk for the rest of my life.”
After graduating with her degree in Environmental Studies, Sarah moved from the fertile soil of Eugene, where growing food is a way of life, to begin her farming journey in an unlikely place: the parched desert soil of Tucson. The odds were not exactly stacked in her favor but she was intent on following her dream.
Farming does not run in Sarah’s family, although her paternal grandfather did own a nursery business in St. Louis. When we asked Sarah why first generation farmers would want to enter agriculture, she explained, “Some of the more famous farmers or farm influencers that I read or follow talk about ‘the technology fallout.’ A lot of people my age have gone into the tech world and the gig economy and I think a lot of them are finding that it’s not the quality of life they want, that’s not the grind they’re into. There’s this longing to reconnect to the natural world and the soil. And there’s this whole green, sustainability movement that’s been happening outside of the world of farming. People are becoming more aware of environmental issues.”
Attracting young farmers is one thing. Keeping them gainfully employed in agriculture is another. According to Sarah, the lack of a clear pipeline or career path into farming is one of the biggest challenges first-generation farmers face, particularly in Southern Arizona. Where can one learn the technical skills and on-the-job skills to be a farmer? There simply are not many farms large enough to employ people full time here.
Fortunately, Sarah had money saved and a supportive husband so she could afford to take low paid internships to learn her trade. She also had the support of the Southern Arizona Young Farmer & Rancher Coalition (SAYFRC), an organization committed to developing young farmers and establishing more farms.
Through her affiliation with SAYFRC, earlier this year Sarah was introduced to the Trust’s Sopori Creek and Farm project and was invited along with other young farmers to visit the site and offer their perspectives.
“It was a really incredible experience,” recalls Sarah. “My first impression of Liz [Petterson] and the folks on the Trust Board is that they have such a passion and such a beautiful vision for the space. Liz describes this dream as a tapestry, a coalition of different groups with a shared vision of producing food and fiber and livestock for Tucson and surrounding regions. That’s so cool to me. I’m really interested in this idea of collaborating and cooperating with other people rather than perpetuating the single-family farm model which unfortunately doesn’t work in a lot of ways.
“It was really inspiring to hear ‘What if this space could be shared by many groups?’ and that there would be benefit of many people out here rubbing shoulders. The space itself is so inspiring! It’s a really beautiful landscape to be right along that riparian area that has been really well protected. There are very healthy trees and native plants and all the different animals moving through and the mountain views are really incredible. Plus, the fact that it is 30 minutes from Tucson is huge in terms of market opportunity,” Sarah said.
“Having this beautiful vast open space that would be used by farmers and ranchers and other folks, I think it’s the direction we need to move in with land access being one of the biggest barriers to young people wanting to enter the profession. It’s a hurdle that farmers need to be helped over. So to be able to step into a place without the financial burden that’s required to buy land, it just opens the door for so many people who maybe wouldn’t have that opportunity. A really utopic future would be one where there’s a clear pipeline and there’s a clear open door for people who say, ‘Yes I want to pursue this career,’ because it’s not an easy one. There are very few people that are willing, especially in Arizona in the middle of the summer, who want to spend their days outside tending the land. It takes a special person – or maybe a crazy person – and if there’s only a few of us, I think removing as many barriers as possible to make that a reality is so important. I’m so excited about this investment that the Trust has made to provide a space and an open door to people.”
“The worst case future scenario is that we won’t have farmers, we won’t have local people producing culturally appropriate local food and we will turn into an area of housing development and more concrete. It’s scary that we’re hitting 115 degrees in early June but I don’t think it’s surprising. I think we’re continuing to see dramatic climate change and farmers are so important to partnering with folks like ALWT who care about the environment and care about making sure that we’re making good long term decisions, preserving land that can stay open and undeveloped and also using it in a beneficial way. Producing food for people is one of the most basic needs, also wise water land use and caring about animals. I think the Trust’s heart is in the right place and they are weaving together all these different groups in a really unique and important way to honor the land from many different angles.”