Urban farmer Ken Singh harvests the all-organic fruits of his labor.
On a clear November afternoon, farmer Ken Singh surveys the meandering gardens and canopied Paulownia trees of his 60-acre tract at Loop 101 and Thomas Road, pausing to run a hand through dark, rich soil. “When you talk spirituality, it’s your relationship to people, your relationship to nature and food,” he says. “When I’m working, I’m not here. I’m with everyone that’s no longer here.”
Heady talk for a farmer, but par for the metaphysical course at Singh Farms, the Valley’s go-to locale for fresh micro-farmed produce. Inspired by his late father, Singh has overseen the farm’s evolution from parched desert canvas to urban forest, utilizing “green” methods in harmony with the Earth, eschewing petrochemicals and harmful soil additives in favor of natural pest control methods and homemade compost. “[Ken] has to be one of the biggest tree huggers I’ve ever met,” jokes former Desert Botanical Garden horticulturist Kirti Mathura, who consults with Singh on edible plantings, butterfly-attracting flowers and other projects.
Though there’s a spiritual bent to Singh’s notion that plants take on the characteristics of the grower – i.e., an angry farmer would produce a less palatable squash – his farming techniques came from hands-on experience. Singh’s India-born father immigrated to Arizona in 1936. As a kid, Singh worked the family plot, milking cows and harvesting crops. “We weren’t supposed to educate ourselves; we were supposed to work. It kept me out of trouble,” he says. Later, Singh ran agricultural businesses in New York and Seattle, forgoing his father’s ideals of community-centric farming in favor of profits.
“Thirty years ago I could say I was raising food to sell it,” Singh admits. “I used to hold it in a warehouse until the commodity went up a nickel.” He was making money, but losing friends to medical conditions he connected to poor dietary options. So in 2003, he convinced friends on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community to share a small plot of land they didn’t know what to do with. His goal? Let Mother Nature do the work so he could provide healthful, organic produce for his family. “Not one plant was here when I came,” Singh says. He turned the concrete-like caliche soil layer, mixed in organic compost, and planted trees and vegetables.
Soon the farm was thriving. “It started out as Singh Farms; now it’s turning into Singh Forest,” Mathura cracks. What was a desolate desert parcel is now home to edible flowers, waterfalls of sweet potatoes, mesquite bosques, beehives and plants from Swiss chard to orange-yellow Buddha’s hand, a citron variety. Rustic cabins and arbors greet Saturday market guests, each building made from recycled materials. “I like the old Louis L’Amour Western style,” Singh quips.
In the farm’s early days, Singh could be spotted planting seeds or tending vegetables from sunup to sundown. As the farm’s popularity grew, Singh hired community members to assist with farming. His wife prices items for sale at the onsite market and one of his two sons assists with the juice bar.
On Saturday mornings, guest chefs prepare meals with the farm’s fresh-picked produce. “I never built this to share,” Singh says. “They just came and people seemed to enjoy it. A lot of my success is thanks to the company I keep.” Outside help has allowed the aging Singh to shift his role to education and community outreach; school tours feed his drive to prepare future generations to heal the earth. “That’s the group we can impact. I’m not much of a planner, I just do what I do and show by example,” Singh says. That example, along with his experience in dust control and soil reclamation, makes him a hot commodity among local sustainability groups. He’s worked with groups from the Department of Transportation to Phoenix Zoo. Singh Farms compost is used by the landscaping crews of local hotels including Hyatt and Doubletree.
Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability is among Singh’s supporters. He won ASU’s President’s Award for Sustainability in 2010 for his work with their Ground Services Green Waste Re-Use program, which composts about 12 tons per month of waste from the college. Singh was recently selected to re-adapt the Rio Salado Golf Course into a community space with water features and walkable gardens. The main challenges, Singh says, are flushing pre-existing chemicals and replacing broken sprinklers. “I’m not building it with makeup and paint,” he jokes.
Unlike the golf course project, Singh never intended his farm to be a public space. But now he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m a pretty gruff guy,” he says, “but I’m becoming gentle. We all want someone to be proud of us. I want my dad to be proud.” Singh recalls one incident from his childhood where he chastised his dad for giving a man free produce. Five decades later, Singh provides olives to local monks gratis (for olive oil) and charges $3 per pound for some vegetables that cost him more than double that to produce. He likens this shift in thinking to a public bus metaphor. “I used to want to own the bus,” he says. “Now I realize I only need money for a ticket.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 20-30 percent of the household waste that ends up in landfills could easily be composted at home. Three basic components are needed for home composting: browns (yard debris), greens (food waste, grass) and water.
Ken Singh began composting after the commercial companies he contacted couldn’t give specifics about the carbon ratio and temperature of their products. Today, his compost heaps are so massive they require construction vehicles to manage.
“A compost pile is all math, chemistry and biology,” Singh says. But you don’t have to be a mathematician or science whiz to start a pile in your backyard. Singh advises beginning composters pay attention to four key elements:
Composition – Watch what goes into your pile. Ideally, you should have similar amounts of greens and browns, and about 30 parts carbon and three parts nitrogen. “If that’s not correct, it’s going to rot, draws vermin and stinks like hell,” Singh warns. Composters can buy commercial soil test kits or send samples to a lab for testing (The US Composting Council offers a list at compostingcouncil.org/labs).
Moisture – According to Singh, only a few drops of liquid should come out when you squeeze a handful of compost. If brown liquid pours out, it’s rotting. Too dry and the microbes die before they have a chance to do their work.
Temperature – Ideal temperature is between 152 and 156 degrees; anything over 160 and the microbes needed for healthy compost die. “If I see a mulch pile on fire, I laugh,” Singh quips. “It’s pointless.” Tip: Purchase a commercial temperature probe to ensure your pile’s temp hits the mark.
Rotation – Turn your pile frequently to promote oxygenation and avoid any potential temperature stresses. You can also purchase a home composting machine that works like a bingo number bin, with a crank handle for easy rotation.