A Vision to Support Thriving Desert Economies

Sept. 26, 2022

There are many other dryland regions, but no other as inspiring as Tucson and the surrounding borderlands. In fact, drylands comprise 41% of the Earth’s land surface, a number that is growing as the encroaching threat of desertification threatens the livelihoods of nearly two billion people in over 100 countries (UN source). Since we all need to prepare for an uncertain future, we might as well embrace it as promoters and pioneers of what it means to thrive in a desert community.

The concept we're (Zulema and Evan, US-MX borderlands natives and resilient food advocates) pursuing is a private enterprise with three broad functions: 1) An open-source, demo food production operation that carries out dryland farming experiments and examples for all visitors to observe; 2) lodging and event space that offers a genuine Sonoran Desert experience; 3) supplier of fresh ingredients and farm/garden products for the local community. The private sector has the potential to be a responsible driver of environmental and economic development (OECD source). While we'd prefer to focus mostly on the first function described, the reality is that diverse revenue streams will help us to sustain our mission and vision.

There are many organizations in the region such as the UA Center for Regional Food Studies, Borderlands Restoration Network, and Native Seeds/SEARCH with whom we would like to strategically partner to prioritize the cultivation of both heritage, pre-Colombian crops and other crops selected for their adaptability to a dry, hot climate. Examples include Oʼodham and Arizona-based heirloom maize varieties, tepary beans, chiltepines, amaranth, drought-tolerant squash, greens and possibly native succulents for direct sale. Already embedded in the food service community, we will tailor our production plans to meet local chef and other business-to-business preferences.

But our commercial production efforts will not be limited to fresh produce. Dryland farming communities will need to adapt input production, such as composting and vermicomposting. Therefore, we will have a small-scale worm farm operation to generate additional revenue from worm, leachate and vermicompost sales. Tortillas are a borderlands staple. Using regionally-appropriate maize, a tortillería (nixtamalizada) will provide local taquerías and bellies with supplies. Because livestock and meat production are among the worst contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, we will use these tortillas and dryland crops (e.g., huauzontles, squash, hongos) to establish a "taquería de pescado sin pecado" (a vegetarian fish taco concept true to the borderlands).

The food production arm of the operation will also support another revenue source: short-term rentals and event venues. The short-term rentals may be facilitated through a platform like Airbnb for regular revenue, but may also be blocked out by larger groups for a retreat setting. We have experience with retreats as both participants and planners, from social justice fellowship retreats to plant medicine therapy to drylands food production and social learning experiences. Retreat workshops might include tours of controlled-environment agriculture infrastructure, regenerative soil health practices, low-cost input production, and a salsa prep demo using chiles tatemados and local herb alternatives.

Tucson has long been a popular destination for outsiders seeking a spa or resort-like experience. That's fine. But we need to broaden the appeal of Tucson as a destination for those interested in learning more about how to not just survive, but thrive in a hot, dry and uncertain future. Our concept will play a small role in that future. Still, Tucson will be showcased as an example of what it means to grow, eat and live well for generations to come, in spite of what the rest of the world does.

Authors Bio:

Evan and Zulema (partners) both have roots in the Sonoran desert, and currently live in Ensenada, Baja California. Zulema was born and raised in Mexicali, studied psychology, and now teaches at a local university. Evan was born and raised in southern Arizona, studied international relations, and now works in sustainable farming and land management. Both aspire to maintain livelihoods along both sides of the border, and eventually move back to the Tucson region. A project like the one described here for "Envisioning the future of food and farming in southern Arizona" may just very well be their calling.