Sleeping Frog Farms - owned and operated collectively by four good friends, growing food year round through desert winters - has an unusual business model. Debbie Weingarten, her husband, Adam Valdivia, and their friends CJ Marks and Clay Smith are the masterminds behind the farm. We caught up with Debbie to get the inside scoop.
How long have you been farming? The four of us have been farming for different lengths of time. I’ve been farming for about six years full-time, but my work history is filled with all kinds of random jobs: I’ve taught farming and food systems to youth, I’ve been a social worker, a human rights advocate, a barista, a mail sorter, and a carpentry apprentice, among many other things.
What do you produce? We focus on growing high-quality heirloom vegetables, but we also manage a large flock of layer hens and a small herd of dairy goats. We use the goat milk that we produce to hand-make our signature herbal goat milk soap.
What are your markets? Our primary market focus is the city of Tucson, which is about an hour away from our farm. We sell at two farmers markets, a grocery coop, and about a dozen area restaurants. We also run a growing farm-to-school program and manage a 150-member CSA.
What is unique or unusual about your farm? We are collectively owned by four individuals. So we’re not really a family farm, but we’re not a commune either. We’re four friends who came together as equal owner-operators to grow delicious food for our community. The balance between the four of us is our most important tool as a small business. We all came to the table with different networks, strengths, and backgrounds, which has been essential in the development of our on-farm systems (like sprouting, greenhouse, and post-harvest handling systems, for example), as well as our branding, community relationships, and farm education programs. And as a year-round operation, we face the stark reality of burn-out from the farm’s constant perpetual motion, so it helps that there are four of us so that we can each take a vacation once in awhile.
Why did you get involved with CNG? We were asked by our local coop to participate in CNG, but we’ve been aware of CNG for years, and we absolutely love the model! Farmers certifying other farmers (thus building a tighter community of like-minded growers) make a whole lot of sense to us.
How did you get into farming? What made you want to become a farmer? I was lucky enough to attend Warren Wilson College in NC. Through extensive farm and garden operations, the school was focused on producing as much of its own meat and vegetables as possible. I had been obsessed with homesteading since childhood, so I gravitated to this idea again as an adult. After I left school, I eventually found myself in a social work job, witnessing devastating health problems in many of my clients. It became clear to me that many of the health issues I was seeing were the result of poor diet, which was the result of industrial food’s deceptive system of convenient, over-processed, cheap food. I chose to leave my salaried job, opting instead for a low-paying job on a vegetable farm. After a season of muscle aches and sunburns, pulling carrots in monsoon rain, battling weeds taller than me, watching eggplant and okra set fruit, and sending gorgeous vegetables go off to market, I was completely in love. And the rest is history.
(When) have you wished you hadn’t become a farmer? Desert winters are rough. This February, we hit two degrees, and nearly 80% of our crops were either lost or damaged. Extreme weather (too hot, too cold, too windy, too rainy, you-name-it…) can send a farmer, whose livelihood depends on his/her crop succeeding, into a slurry of migraine-inducing, knuckle-cracking, curse-word-slinging anxiety (with a capital A). It’s those days when a 9-to-5 job honestly sounds kind of dreamy—we sit around the woodstove, compulsively checking the weather station every five minutes, remembering the days of blissfully leaving work at work, completely unaffected by the weather.
What’s your most useful piece of clothing for working on the farm? Overalls, hands down. And pull-on Red Wing boots.
Favorite vegetable I’m such a sucker for beets. I just think they’re absolutely the most delicious and beautiful things on the planet. I’m not picky about the varieties – a good mix is nice. Goldens, Chioggia, and some really dark Detroit Reds to stain my fingers.
How do you include your community in your farming operation? We absolutely love our community. We maintain a transparent operation, and we encourage our customers, CSA members, and neighbors to visit the farm to see where and how their food is being grown. We encourage questions and suggestions. We love volunteers. We throw some pretty killer potlucks and farm parties for our CSA members and market customers. We host youth groups, give workshops, speak at local events, sit on community boards, write for community publications, and run an intensive and ever-evolving intern program. We’re also the co-founders of a non-profit (along with Walking J Farm, another CNG farm in our area), called FERN, which is focused on growing new farmers in our desert region.
What advice do you have for a farmer just starting out? Take lots of pictures. Document everything. Laugh at yourself. Enlist the help of your friends and family. Don’t become bitter (no one likes to buy their carrots from the bitter guy). Don’t get hung up on all of your failures, but learn from them (because they’re usually expensive). Remember to eat. Take a day off, at least once in awhile. Develop a brand that people can recognize. Don’t undercut your fellow farmers. Don’t undervalue your own product. Focus on what you do well. Treat your farm as an evolving organism. Put your head down and work, but remember to look around you and be grateful for the opportunity you have to work outside, to be your own boss, and for the role you’ve chosen in your community.