Growing food became more than a pandemic hobby for fitness trainers Rachael and James Stewart. The Gilbert couple plan to deliver poultry, eggs, grass-fed beef, halal meat and fresh vegetables to metro Phoenix from a new farm they’re building in Douglas, Arizona.
The idea came as the Stewarts saw meatpacking plants across the country close from COVID-19 outbreaks. They started their project, Southwest Black Ranchers, because they feel their food system depends too much on factory farms — the monolith of industrial agriculture that dominates U.S. food production.
Rachael has experience in raising pigs and farming through 4-H, a youth program run by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. But Southwest Black Ranchers will be her and her husband’s first time starting a commercial farm together.
The Stewarts are financing the project through personal funds and have also started GoFundMe to supplement costs. Donations will go toward animals, construction, refrigeration, delivery vehicles, equipment and other items, according to their GoFundMe.Rachael said they will still continue building their farm, even if they don’t hit their $400,000 fundraising goal, and will be applying for grants.
“If you had told us in February we’d be in a ranch, we wouldn’t have believed you,” Rachael said. “Funny how life turns out. It’s not easy. Tools and materials are expensive. Every little bit helps.”
What is Southwest Black Ranchers?
Southwest Black Ranchers will function as a food distributor that ships directly to families and restaurants, operating from a 10-acre farm in Douglas, just north of the Arizona-Mexico border. People will be able to order food online.
Although the Stewarts and their four children live in Gilbert, the land in southern Arizona was what they could afford, and her husband James sold his 1972 Chevy Caprice to make the land payment, Rachael said. The family goes back and forth between Gilbert and Douglas, but once they’re done with construction, the family plans to move to Douglas.
The Stewart family started Southwest Black Ranchers, a farm based in Douglas, Arizona. (Photo: Courtesy of Southwest Black Ranchers)
The farm will start with poultry — different types of chicken, guineafowls, pheasants and by next year’s Thanksgiving, heritage turkeys. They plan to have cows, but don’t have a pasture set up yet. First crops will include sweet potatoes, sweet peppers and herbs.
Rachael expects they be will be fully operational and ready to sell products sometime within the next year, with the goal of feeding 1,000 people every month.
Why they want to increase Black representation in agriculture
Southwest Black Farmers also has another mission: to increase Black representation in agriculture and inspire the next generation of Arizonans to return to the land.
Black farmers made up 14% of the country’s farmers in 1920, but discriminatory lending practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped cause hundreds of thousands of Black farmers to lose their land in the subsequent years. By 2017, Black farmers made up less than 2% of the country’s farmers, according to the USDA.
Volunteers from Drinking Gourd Farms, a network of Black gardeners, farmers and homesteaders in Phoenix, are helping Southwest Black Ranchers with mulching the soil, a way to improve soil health and conserve moisture.
Through Drinking Gourd Farms, the Stewarts learned there was a demand from metro Phoenix’s Muslim African community for more halal options. In response, Southwest Black Ranchers plan on offering halal and kosher meat products for families with dietary restrictions.
There are four to five other Black families in Arizona who’ve also expressed interest in getting involved with the farm and helping with construction, Rachael said. Southwest Black Ranchers is open to other families who want to raise their own animals on the ranch and will work the details out on a case by case basis, she said.
With her own children getting hands-on experience, she hopes they can see there’s a future in farming.
The children of James and Rachael Stewart travel with their parents from Gilbert to Douglas where they help out on a new Arizona ranch. (Photo: Courtesy of Southwest Black Ranchers)
“I’m Filipino and my husband is Black. It’s very important for them to see there are more Black people doing this,” Rachael said. “They don’t have to just be a singer or basketball player. They need people to pave the way and show it’s all possible, and not be scared of who they are.”
‘We need to understand how many nutrients are in our food’
To get started with their new project, the Stewarts began working with Black farming groups they found through Facebook and reached out to a mentor based in Texas who’s teaching them about hydroponics, a method of growing plants in water with nutrients instead of soil.
The Stewarts also took a class in aeroponics at True Garden, a greenhouse in Mesa. Aeroponics refers to a water-efficient method of growing plants by misting their roots, which dangle in the air without soil.
Online they follow Angus Spier, a South African farmer who specializes in regenerative agriculture, an approach that focuses on soil restoration and biodiversity.
Southwest Black Ranchers is currently building hyperdobe buildings made from mesh earthbags and underground hydroponic greenhouses.
As a family that works in fitness — James is also a competitive bodybuilder — it’s important for them to promote nutrient-dense food, Rachael said.
Whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables and fresh meat, are packed with more nutrients than processed foods labeled “low calorie” or “organic,” she explained.
“Most people do calories in, calories out, but it’s the content of those calories that count,” Rachael said. “We need to understand how many nutrients are in our food. Just because it says ‘healthy organic’ and you’re paying through the roof, doesn’t mean it has the most nutrients.”
For updates on Southwest Black Ranchers, people can follow the Stewart family on facebook.com/4Southwestblackranchers and instagram.com/southwestblackranchers.
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