By Rodolfo Morales, Ph.D., Horticulture and Ecology Educator

This month marks my fifth anniversary at Rainbow Acres and, to celebrate, I decided to write an account of the amazing life I’ve had since my arrival at this incredible place and its residential programs for adults with disabilities in Arizona. I believe destiny brought me to Northern Arizona after a wonderful experience helping farmers develop vegetable production systems in West Africa. The lessons learned on producing food in the sub-Saharan Desert were key to developing a food production program here in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

Working with the Ranchers complemented my previous experience, allowing me to bring agricultural knowledge to people who are inspired to learn and work on food production while sustaining Mother Nature. The Greenhouse, Shade-house and Outdoor Garden provide unique opportunities for Ranchers to enjoy their natural surroundings while actively helping produce vegetables that are delivered fresh to the kitchen on the Ranch. Our program has gradually improved over the course of the past five years, as old infrastructure has been replaced to meet the needs of our crop production.

Another key to our production success is the availability of animal manure collected at the Barn, which we use to improve our nutrient-poor soils. I highly appreciate the Ranchers who participate in collecting manure at the Barn, especially Daniel C., who I commonly see carrying it to the composting sites. When I see Daniel doing this activity (and after he sees our flourishing gardens), he frequently says, “I now believe in manure.” Daniel is right, as our entire organic production success is highly dependent on the amount of manure we get – the more the better for us!

Production of cool season vegetables like lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and beets has been successful without the need for artificial heating within the Greenhouse. Since the Greenhouse is too hot during the spring and fall seasons, we use the Shade-house to produce cool season vegetables because insects are not present during that time of the year. We do, however, have an extensive insect problem during the summer months but manage to produce warm season vegetables like tomatoes, squash, zucchini, among others, by planting very early and harvesting before the insects arrive.

We germinate all warm season crops early in the spring inside the Greenhouse to avoid plant damage by late-winter freezing events. When freezing become unlikely, we transplant seedlings to the Shade-house and Outdoor Garden, which allows harvesting to begin in early June and end at the onset of monsoonal humidity (which promotes insect proliferation). Droughts during the last two years have benefitted our summer production, since monsoonal rains haven’t arrived until late in August. This has allowed us to keep producing veggies to record-breaking levels, up to 2,500 pounds of produce this year! However, because extensive droughts have negatively impacted our limited water resources across the Southwest, I wish our monsoonal rains would come in July as they traditionally have. We won’t break production records but still will produce plenty for everyone to enjoy!

We have the technical capabilities to be successful, but we could not produce so many vegetables without the Ranchers who regularly participate in this program: John Bryan V., John A., Joseph L., Dale C., Steve W. and Rob M. are the souls of our flourishing crops! Every day, I appreciate them for coming to work at the Greenhouse with such an inspiration even when we are in the middle of summer heat or winter cold. I usually thank them for coming even when they have the choice to attend another program in a controlled-climate classroom. Their usual response is, “Don’t worry, we’ll never leave you!” That makes my day and gives me the strength to keep going!

I remember when our educators visited Rancher houses to inquire about their general interest on class topics. When asked, John A. said, “I don’t think I will ever leave the Greenhouse program.” From that moment on, I thought that we will always have a program! I should say that it took some time to find specific tasks the Ranchers like to do and are able to execute. While Dale, Rob, John and Steve are very good at planting seeds or transplanting seedlings, Joseph and John Bryan are very good at trenching, mixing soil with manure, and handling a full wheelbarrow. Harvesting is the one activity they all love to do, and carrying produce to the Ranch’s kitchen is the ultimate task they all proudly do.

Since we don’t have systems with artificial cooling or heating, our veggies are highly seasonal. We only produce lettuce during the cool season and tomatoes during the warm season. Therefore, we usually produce more than what is needed at the kitchen, and the remaining produce is given to the staff and external food-drive initiatives. This year, Rainbow Acres donated around 400 pounds of squash and zucchini to senior centers in Sedona and Cottonwood. Last year, the Bread of Life food pantry in Camp Verde distributed our surplus lettuce on many occasions. With great pleasure, our Ranchers also get involved in food-drive initiatives, which is an important component of a healthy spiritual life.

I also highly appreciate the precious work of volunteers, especially the SOER groups, who have greatly contributed to building our beautiful infrastructure. Building in the middle of the heat or the cold, I many times have told them that it’s hard for me to understand how they can do such work for free, and their common answer is “We’re just having fun!” Truly amazing people. This is the first time I have worked in a place where volunteers play an important role in the organization’s function.

I can definitely say that Rainbow Acres has changed my life, as I witnessed the Ranchers making their best effort to succeed in their lives. I have learned to leave barriers aside, which has allowed me to focus entirely on the work I do, and on ways to help our wonderful Ranchers thrive. I very much thank the Ranchers as I have learned so much from them! They even inspired me to go beyond Greenhouse production and broaden my focus to include classroom teaching.

Several years ago, the Ranchers inquired about me teaching them courses on soils and plants, and that was how my role in the education program expanded. I started teaching a Soil Science class in the Spring of 2016, which was followed by a Crop Science class and an Ecology class in the following seasons. Training in various topics caught the attention of other Ranchers and the class group increased beyond the Greenhouse group. The first science symposium for Rancher presentations was held during Family & Friends Weekend in October 2016. The symposium has gained popularity among parents attending this event. Last year, we had 12 inspired Ranchers present their science projects.

Additional activities that originated from teaching courses include field trips to beautiful natural areas near the Ranch and landscaping activities to beautify Rainbow Acres based on models learned from nature. Field trips are now central to my teaching program as the Ranchers learn about ecological qualities that enable holistic plant life in natural environments, which they can adopt for the production of healthy crops. This activity is also recreational because we usually hike along creeks or around lakes as we learn about the environment. The experience usually ends with a delicious lunch prepared by the Ranch’s kitchen under the shade of beautiful Arizona forests!

Because I had the need to take Ranchers outside Rainbow Acres many times on my own, I decided to take the caregiver training program. I am now a certified caregiver, something I never dreamed of in my life but that has now expanded my professional opportunities. As I look back on the last five years, thank you to everyone that has been part of our Greenhouse program and all of the educators and staff members who have helped with field trips and classes. This has been the experience of a lifetime!