Renewing the Countryside: Four Corners Region

The story of our intentions
At Lost Cabin Ranch in north-central Arizona, farm, family and work have evolved together into a sustainable, interdependent whole.

By Susan Lamb
Excerpted by permission from A New Plateau:
Sustaining the lands and peoples of Canyon Country.

Posted January 7, 2005

For more information

A New Plateau: Sustaining the lands and peoples of Canyon Country profiles 38 "modern pioneers" in the Four Corners region who have found ways to make a living while improving the health and well being of their families, communities, and lands.

A joint effort of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University, the Museum of Northern Arizona, and Renewing the Countryside, Inc., A New Plateau is the latest title in the Renewing the Countryside series, a national project highlighting sustainable land stewardship and rural development initiatives across the United States.

To learn more, or to purchase books, contact:
Renewing the Countryside, 2105 First Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55404
1-866-378-0587
www.renewingthecountry
side.org

I really believe,” Rebecca Routson says, “that every square foot of this earth requires its own particular attention.” The particular piece of earth Rebecca and her husband Don attend to is an organic farm in the Williamson Valley northwest of Prescott, Arizona. It is a place of unconventional beauty, set in low foothills on the edge of a dry and shrubby grassland dotted with junipers. A visitor to the farm is soon surrounded by a surprising riot of local vegetation that scarcely appears cultivated.

Rebecca is a lean, tanned woman, light on her feet and with a perpetual smile that could dazzle the sun. She thinks a lot about everything she does and is capable of giving up on years of hard work when she sees that there is a better way to do things. What she likes to talk about, in a way that indicates she’s thought about it a lot, is what she calls “the story of my intentions.”

“I have a master’s degree in nutrition and taught at the University of Wyoming for a few years,” she says. “The knowledge I gained through my academic career led me to realize that if I was going to eat right in this part of the country, I’d have to grow my own food.”

Rebecca and Don moved to Arizona and spent a year looking for the right piece of land. After they found it, they talked to the farmer next door who advised them to raise squash and cucumbers—crops they could harvest by hand.

In the early years, Rebecca and Don were too poor to buy a tractor. They used shovels instead. They started small, with two acres, and added two more the next year, and two more after that. When their produce ripened, they picked five thousand squash in a morning and drove it to supermarkets in Phoenix. Their vegetables were organic, but there was no market for organic produce in those days. After a few years, they realized that they couldn’t make any money selling squash at three or four dollars a box – “the box alone cost a dollar!” Rebecca exclaims.

“The knowledge I gained through my academic career led me to realize that if I was going to eat right in this part of the country, I’d have to grow my own food.”

Don got a job and Rebecca continued to experiment. She shifted from raising produce for the market to growing food for her family. Instead of growing squash and cukes, she cultivated things that would feed them all year – potatoes, onions, garlic, beans. Rebecca was a vegetarian when she was a student, but her health deteriorated when she started doing hard outdoor work. Don told her she needed a good steak; the farm needed manure. They got a cow. She had that steak and felt a whole lot better.

Rebecca and Don began producing half vegetables and half grass-fed beef. Rebecca discovered that managing 20 acres of pasture is much easier than growing six acres of vegetables. The sale of their cattle began to pay for pumping irrigation water and for incidentals. The manure fertilized the crops.

Rebecca and Don have three children: Kanin, Cody, and Rafael. Rebecca notes, “Other kids are asked to take out the garbage, clean their rooms; there’s not a whole lot of pride in that. When children are raised to be responsible for their own sustenance – feed the chickens, cut hay – there may be hay dust all over you, but you’re feeding animals that will feed you. The circle is complete.” As Rebecca puts it, “the farm is family-dependent and the family is farm-dependent.”

It is this sense of completeness, of wholeness and interdependence, that makes up the beauty of the Routsons’ farm. They grow a minimum of row crops, preferring to plant in small patches scattered around low hills, in niches protected from the wind. Wild and cultivated plants support each other and blanket the soil to prevent evaporation. These microclimates can add two weeks to the growing season.

In the row-cropped bottomland, Rebecca sows clover in tractor-wide strips. The clover enriches the soil with nitrogen, prevents moisture loss, and diverts gophers and rabbits from the tomatoes and beans. For her fiftieth birthday Don built Rebecca a chicken tractor—a long wire enclosure on wheels that enables her to graze chickens along the rows of green manure forage. The chickens' diet of greens, insects, and a little grain helps them lay eggs with day-glo golden yolks rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

"When children are raised to be responsible for their own sustenance – feed the chickens, cut hay – there may be hay dust all over you, but you’re feeding animals that will feed you. The circle is complete.”

The Routsons’ farm lies at the upper end of the large underground Chino Aquifer, so they have no shortage of water. Rebecca uses a sprinkler system to irrigate her crops. She explains, “Drip irrigation doesn’t grow things like I want to grow them. It limits me to row crops and there’s so much plastic garbage. Drip also confines the water to a narrow strip that concentrates the gophers on your crops.” Rebecca continues, “If sprinklers are done properly, if you make sure that everywhere the water falls there’s something useful growing, it’s different. You just don’t water on a warm, windy afternoon, but in the morning or at night.”

Rebecca learned how to farm her land mostly by this sort of experimentation. Then she was asked to teach a class on agriculture at Prescott College, and she read some books to prepare for that. She realized that she could learn a lot from books, too. But she still holds with the old saying that “the best fertilizer is the farmer’s footsteps.”

“Farming will keep you in poverty,” Rebecca says. “Every cent you earn is sucked up by the farm and it’s very labor intensive. But the rewards are so great: the closeness of our family, the work ethic, the meaning to life.”

A few hours of wandering in the Routsons’ Eden are enough to make anyone a convert.