The Desert Can Yield a Bounty of Vegetables—Just Ask One of Arizona’s Sustainable Farmers

Horticulturist Alfonso Chavez is helping return his Tucson, Arizona, community to the traditional and Indigenous practices that were disrupted by colonization and industrialization.

"There’s this perception of the desert as lacking—dry and dead—but that’s really only since colonization and industrialization," says Alfonso Chavez, an artist, activist, and horticulturist devoted to sustainable farming in the Tucson area. "These lands were once well-nourished and there were abundant water sources." Over time, he says, waterways were drained, the light changed, and invasive plant species and insects were introduced.

Chavez is among those helping to restore traditional cultural practices of food production and farming, wild harvesting, and sustainability. He’s a nursery coordinator at San Xavier Co-op Farm, a community-based farm founded and run by members of the Tohono O'odham Nation, and a collaborator in Flowers and Bullets, an agricultural and arts center that has transformed a defunct elementary school in Tucson’s Barrio Centro.

"Indigenous communities paved the way for the green movement," says Chavez. "They’ve always been conservationists when it comes to water and to caring for the land. It was the only lifestyle that was sustainable." He spoke with Dwell about his path to community-based farming, the food he’s helping grow in the Sonoran Desert, and the most central issue at stake there today: water.

Alfonso Chavez is helping communities around Tucson, Arizona, practice sustainable farming.

Dwell: How did you first get involved in community-based farming?

Chavez: Some of my buddies started Flowers and Bullets, doing work around sustainable agriculture and helping people grow their own food. I joined them in 2012 to help out with the merchandise because I’m an artist. That introduced me to food justice work and community outreach. We’ve done work with the local school districts and community centers, addressing food justice, traditional practices, culture, identity, rights to water, healthy lifestyles, and so on.

Can you tell us a bit about the complex history of water in the area?

The Santa Cruz River was the bloodline and life force of the Indigenous communities. It was used to irrigate crops and pretty much provided for everything. But when the city started developing, they drained that water supply, which mobilized Indigenous activists to challenge the extraction of resources by means of the historic Water Settlement Act of the Tohono O’odham Nation. That movement ensured their right and access to water.

Managing that water is clearly a major issue today. How has the approach changed?

At one point we would use natural rivers and streams. Now it looks a little different. People are doing drip irrigation rather than how it was traditionally done because a lot of wells are now drained and the aquifers aren’t sitting at the levels they used to. There are a lot of movements to restore these things and use regenerative practices to reinstate what we were used to. The area is returning to the ways that were once practiced and still are by many. Those are the ways that we’ve always used to sustain the land and help the water and the creatures and all the relatives.

How can people be smarter with water at home?

You can shape the land in order to reroute water and have it flow in the direction that you want it to. So when it rains, instead of your water going off wherever, you can channel it into basins that you can use to support your garden.

Chavez at Flowers and Bullets, a community farm and art center that set up shop using a shuttered elementary school.

Are there particular crops that are thriving there in the desert?

Corn, squash, and beans—they’re rooted in the Southwest and in Indigenous communities. A lot of varieties of those plants were lost. But some varieties have survived and those are the seeds that we use today. There’s a process of seed selection to help ancestral plants make their way back. We grow tepary beans and 60-day corn, for instance. The corn is native and one of the most drought tolerant varieties. We also grow a watermelon that’s drought tolerant, too.

Do you have a favorite crop that gardeners can grow at home?

I like zucchini squash. It’s a high yielding crop. And it’s one of the plants that I love to see germinate, because in less than a week after planting it, it’ll just burst out of the soil. And it’s got these huge leaves with different varieties and colors—Mexican gray squash, zucchini squash, the yellow neck.

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