Sunizona Family Farms

Willcox, Arizona
JPEG - 2.5 Mb
Veganically Grown
Veganic tomatoes at Sunizona Farm


Sunizona Family Farms specializes in greenhouse tomatoes, herbs, and salad greens, and they have recently started growing field crops. In 2008 they began to transition their farm to veganic agriculture, and now the main greenhouse and fields are completely veganic. Sunizona has a special emphasis on local inputs, and they heat their greenhouse and make their own potting soil using local waste pecan shells.

Sunizona Family Farms is located in Willcox, Arizona, a little more than an hour east of Tucson.
A collective family effort, Byron and Janice and their four adult children manage all aspects of farming and marketing. Sunizona also provides employment for 8 other families in the region.

At Sunizona they grew hydroponically for years with chemical fertilizers, though always without pesticides. They wanted to switch to organic agriculture, but hydroponic organic growing generally involves fish fertilizers, and they were determined to grow without animal products. Over the course of 2008 and 2009 they converted their 1 ½ acre greenhouse from hydroponic to veganic raised beds. This greenhouse, which mainly grows tomatoes, along with zucchini and green beans, became Certified Organic in 2009. Their other greenhouse, which grows herbs and baby greens, is still hydroponic, though they hope to convert it to veganic practices in the future.

2009 was Sunizona’s first season growing crops in the fields, growing 6 acres of veganic squash and melons. They are planning to expand this to 30 acres in future years, diversifying their crops and developing a rotation with over-wintering green manures. Despite having extremely dry desert temperatures—6% humidity, and months at a time without rainfall—the farm has access to an aquifer that is fed by nearby mountains, and they can use this to irrigate the fields.

“Veganic” is labeled clearly on the packaging at Sunizona Farm, which generates conversations and questions from their customers. The family transitioned to veganic agriculture for several reasons: the ethical treatment of animals, avoiding contaminants from animal-based fertilizers, and providing proper nutrition for the plants.

Byron is concerned that the widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, with potential effects to human health and soil health. Byron read a study that showed that antibiotics in manure can be uptaken by the plants, and another study which showed that antibiotics can enter the water system through rainwater runoff from farms. They also want to avoid problems of e. coli and salmonella from fecal contamination. While many greenhouses rely on fish emulsion, at Sunizona they are concerned about the high levels of heavy metals in fish populations.

They also find that plant-based fertilizers provide a better balance of nutrients. As nutrient requirements are fairly uniform across the whole kingdom of plants, by feeding plants with plants they receive the nutrients they need in about the right proportions. With manure, after passing plant material through the body of a cow, there is an imbalance of low calcium and excess phosphorus and potassium. Byron finds that it is much simpler to deal with plant nutrition by using plant-based inputs.

Sunizona Farm strives to find fertility sources in their local area. They purchase locally-grown alfalfa and keep all of their dry tomato waste, and they run these materials through their pelletizer. These pellets are the primary source of fertility in the greenhouse, and make it easy to apply a consistent amount to each bed.

Pelletized alfalfa

Their desire to produce food locally goes further, as the Sunizona greenhouse is heated using biomass from local, reclaimed pecan shells. The shells are pelletized and burned in a bio-mass boiler system, and excess pellets are sold by the farm. The ash from the boiler is added back into their potting soil. Sunizona makes their own potting soil mix from local waste pecan shells, ash from the boiler, leaves and stems from their tomato plants, and waste cardboard from the warehouse.

Over 90% of their produce is sold within Arizona. They supply all of the Whole Foods stores in the state, and also supply a smaller health food chain in northern Arizona. Much of their produce is purchased by high-end restaurants and resorts. In previous years they sold their produce directly to a broker, but now Sunizona coordinates all of their distribution by contracting a delivery company. This allows them to supply their customers with much fresher produce, and cater to the needs of smaller businesses.

To learn more about Sunizona Family Farms, please visit their website: www.sunizonafamilyfarms.com

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15 February 2010
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