The city of Phoenix is finding and training a new generation of farmers

Phoenix’s new Urban Agriculture Fellowship Program will pair nine residents between the ages of 18 to 24 with local farms and pay them to work and study under some of the most knowledgeable growers in Arizona.

In Phoenix, Arizona, where the average age of a principal farm operator is 61 years old, local growers have had trouble finding apprentices. In an effort to help urban farms and kickstart a new wave of urban farmers, the city has launched The Urban Agriculture Fellowship Program, which will match nine Phoenix residents between the ages of 18 to 24 with nine local farms. The program is part of the city’s Phoenix Resilient Food System Program, an initiative to “develop a stronger, connected local food system with more sustainable food options for Phoenix residents” enabled by $9.7 million in federal funding under the American Rescue Plan Act. Fellows will receive $15 an hour to work and train on their respective farm for 20 hours a week.

“For the longest time, the food system has been aware of a confluence of factors that have really put the squeeze on small farms in the city of Phoenix,” said Joseph Rossell, who oversees the fellowship program as Food Systems Program Manager with the city. Rossell cited labor shortages, zoning restrictions, “a general lack of understanding and support in local governments,” and climate change as additional factors hurting local farms.

The Urban Food Fellowship Program’s roots go back nearly two years. “The program has its origins in 2020, when Covid was in its first few waves and we surveyed about 22 local growers,” Rossell said. “We wanted to better understand their challenges, their needs, the impact of Covid on their businesses, their operations, and how they were thinking about growing food in an increasingly challenging environment.”

“For the longest time, the food system has been aware of a confluence of factors that have really put the squeeze on small farms in the city of Phoenix.”

One farm Rossell surveyed was Project Roots, a south Phoenix nonprofit garden led by Bridget Pettis and Dionne Washington that prioritizes diversity and education. Rossell sat down with Washington to learn about their challenges. “Before any program came into place, he really took the time to find out what our needs were, and what we were struggling with,” Washington said. 

Project Roots is now one of the nine participating urban farms in the program. Washington said that, so far, “four or five” of their volunteers have applied, leading her to believe that, whoever ends up as their fellow chosen by the city—a process that will see Rossell’s team pair farms with applicants based on factors like their goals and interests—“the transition is going to be really, really great.”

While many local farms have suffered due to the pandemic, Project Roots has been fortunate. “To be honest with you, the pandemic is really where we revved up,” Washington said. Project Roots has connected with local food banks to distribute food—and that’s on top of farmstand sales. “We’re super grateful for what the city program can do, which is just getting us some help,” she said. “And that’s what we need right away.”

A volunteer with Project Roots wearing mask with locs packs produce into cardboard boxes. February 2022

Project Roots, a south Phoenix nonprofit garden, is one of the nine participating urban farms in the program.

Joseph Martinez of Arizona Microgreens, which sells mostly to restaurants and has seen demand fluctuate significantly since the pandemic began, has a more cautious perspective on the fellowship.

In the past, Martinez has always interviewed, hired, and employed workers himself. As a fellowship farm, however, he will be allowing the city to make a personnel decision, which may affect the team chemistry in the greenhouse. “We have our protocols and our own hiring standards,” he said. “It gives you a little bit of pause. Is this really going to work? I imagine there will be some unexpected outcomes.”

Still, he sees an upside: The program might attract new talent. “As a small farm, we place job listings and people come work for us,” Martinez said. “We don’t take interns or volunteers. My guess is the type of people drawn to a city fellowship program might be beyond the scope of the people who typically come to us looking for work.”

“We’re super grateful for what the city program can do, which is just getting us some help. And that’s what we need right away.”

On the balance, Martinez believes the fellowship will be valuable. “I was very excited to hear the way that [Rossell] with the city of Phoenix has drawn this program,” he said. “I think it’s innovative and takes a lot of risks.”

Stella McPhee of Horny Toad Farms, a 24-year veteran of the local agriculture scene, said the program will be “a godsend” and “a game-changer.” McPhee believes farming in Phoenix’s semiarid climate requires place-specific knowledge, including “learning about the climate, temperature, varieties, and planting times.” She thinks the fellowship will contribute not only to her farm’s survival, but to facilitating a transfer of her hard-won knowledge. “It’ll be a win-win,” she said. “Twenty hours a week is major, especially getting somebody that has to commit for a year and that has met a lot of criteria in order to be selected for the position.”

McPhee looks forward to having a city-funded worker and introducing her fellow to tasks beyond planting, such as community building, managing CSA subscriptions, and farmers’ market sales. “Everything I do, they need to learn how to do—which nursery to go to, where’s the compost? I hope to leave them with a manual for when they have their own farm, or for if they get hired at a farm where they can bring something to the table.”

Rossell said he hoped successful fellows would find abundant opportunities once the program concluded. He added that “hear[ing] directly from the farm that they’ve trained some really promising adults and that they could really benefit from another year, or they could really benefit agriculture here in Phoenix” would also be a favorable outcome. In other words, success would mean early steps toward keeping the tradition of agriculture alive in Phoenix.

Chris Malloy is a writer from the Northeast now based in the Southwest. For stories, he has gone foraging in the southern Rockies and Sonoran Desert, trailed a quest to brew ale overnight in a forest, roamed a feral mountain orchard with cider-making scientists, and gone hunting with Apaches. He covers mostly food, culture, agriculture, the environment, and innovation.