Sustainable Business at The Farm at South Mountain
by Jeffrey Sussman
Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 2009 said, “There is no reason to believe that bureaucrats and politicians, no matter how well meaning, are better at solving problems than the people on the spot, who have the strongest incentive to get the solution right.” One of those people on the spot is Pat Christofolo, the innovative proprietor of The Farm at South Mountain (The Farm).
Situated in the farmers’ district in south Phoenix, The Farm is a local tribute to its originator Dwight Heard who dreamed of starting a sustainable farm in the early 1920’s, long before “sustainable” had the popularity that it currently enjoys. Little did Mr. Heard know that one enterprising woman would preserve his original dream by continuing to lead an encompassing, one of a kind institution that consists of much more than acres of growing fields. The Farm consists of an education center, school for children, Community Supported Agricultural (CSA), bakery, farmers market, three restaurants, a catering business, and an organic farm. All of these entities work in conjunction with one another to enhance The Farm’s self-sufficiency.
The splendor of The Farm is reflected in much more than it’s aesthetically pleasing fruits and vegetables, or its herbs and edible flowers. The real beauty is the synergy that collectively drives the farm’s sustainability. In addition to the 180 pecan, fruit and fig trees, The Farm consists of two main gardens. One, the “soil and seed garden,” provides produce for the three restaurants, the CSA, and the farmer’s market. The second is the “gather and grow garden,” which is totally maintained by local school students. In both gardens, the farmers employ only organic-certified techniques for fertilizing, pest control and weed control, and only plant non-genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds. Since The Farm is in a development zone designated for farming, they work with the Salt River Project, who provides them with a cost effective source of water for irrigation. The Farm also showcases its own chicken coup, known as “Peeps,” which provides the three restaurants, the CSA and the market goers with an ample supply of fresh eggs and happy chickens. The farm partners with local purveyors, including Hickman’s Family Farms, for chickens and compost, as well as other local suppliers for meats and dairy products.
The Farm also defines itself as sustainable based on its level of interaction with the local community it serves, interacting with the community in a number of different ways. For instance, The Farm works with over a thousand children per year to provide local students with a valuable alternative to classroom didactics, teaching everything from the difference between a cucumber and zucchini, to the difference between the Windrow and Berkely methods of composting. The farm also provides students with the unique opportunity to work with both hydroponic and aquaponic growing techniques. The Farm provides these educational experiences at no cost to the schools, and the fruit and vegetables that come from the “gather and grow” garden are free for the staff and students to take home.
The Farm’s neighbors can join its Community Supported Agriculture program. By joining the CSA for a seasonal fee, locals have access to foods, such as freshly picked fruits, vegetables, and eggs. Why go to the supermarket to buy tomatoes from across the country when you can purchase them from your neighborhood farm? In conjunction with, or instead of joining the CSA, you can just visit the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings. While you’re there, why not enroll yourself and your canine friend in a Yoga class? Or if you prefer, visit the Center for Healing Arts, Mi Tierra. Serving the community, the cornerstone of sustainability, is in abundance at The Farm.
Another pillar of sustainability is ensuring the stability of the business model. How can The Farm ensure that it will maintain its services to the community into the future? Will there always be a market for their produce? What if the weather doesn’t cooperate? Ms. Christofolo accounted for those contingencies too.
The Farm at South Mountain also has three premier restaurants: Morning Glory Café, Farm Kitchen, and Quiessence, one for each meal of the day. The term “farm-to-table” takes on literal meaning here. Furthermore, the restaurants are situated a stone’s throw apart, and sit amongst the fruit trees and aromatic edible flowers. The dinner restaurant, Quiessence, is nestled behind a natural stonewall and adjacent to an original stone oven where bread is baked on-site. Quiessence, which is open year round, is the only building that is air-conditioned, thus affording The Farm to efficiently manage its energy costs.
Moreover, the restaurants’ chef is a professional who travels abroad to make sure his menus draw from the most eclectic recipes available to take advantage of the seasonal produce grown on premises. Not coincidentally, the chef’s name is Dustin Christofolo, demonstrating that “family owned and operated” is not a cliché at The Farm. I enjoyed a very palatable lunch at The Farm Kitchen that was probably the freshest and healthiest meal I have eaten.
No matter how you define sustainability, The Farm checks all the boxes: adhering to the strictest organic standards, coexisting with and enhancing the community, partnering with other enterprises that promote healthy food options, and most of all through the inclusion of a synergistic self-contained business philosophy and structure capable of assuring its self-preservation. Ms. Christofolo has successfully taken on Professor Ostrom’s challenge, as The Farm is a living testimony to “getting the solution right”.