Sunday, August 20, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (8/19/06)

A few miles across Interstate 17 from Montezuma’s Castle a dead-end road leads through a waste of barren limestone hills to the turn-off to Tickaboo Ranch. At the turn-off a sign points to a gravel lane which passes by a large plexiglass-clad building on its way to a white ranch house set under a canopy of large trees. In front of the ranch house are a few cars, a battered farm truck, a rusted farm implement in a patch of weeds, and the beginning of a foot path leading around the house. The other side of the house is lush and verdant, reminiscent of a Middle Western farm. The path leads from the desert’s sere past a vast expanse of a shaded lawn, a pump house, a well-used wheel barrow, clumps of green grass, a tangle of forgotten wire fencing, a tractor, to a hedge row, an irrigation ditch, a small foot bridge, and a large green field on the banks of the Verde River.

Diane Scantlebury, the head honcho at the ranch, is accomplishing what the Sinagua people at Montezuma’s Castle tried to accomplish over six hundred years ago, sustainable agriculture, only hers is high tech in a plexiglass-clad building.

She is quick to point out that Tickaboo Ranch is also part old tech with a truck farm flourishing in the rich silt of the Verde River’s flood plain. There she grows tomatoes, peppers, squash, corn, herbs, and melons for a local farmer’s market. The high tech part is in the hydroponic greenhouse, set transitionally between the barren limestone hills and the verdant spread of the old tech truck farm. Diane describes the difference as that between a model T and a supersonic jet. “Things happen in the greenhouse overnight, sometime faster than that. Stuff grows faster and dies faster. You’ve got to be vigilant. There’s nothing slow about hydroponics in a greenhouse, like lickety-split.”

The interior of the hydroponic green house resembles the Hanging Gardens of Babylon with savory and aromatic herbs cascading from the ceiling. High near the ceiling are the controls that manage the heat, the water flow, and the nutrient mix. Most of the hydroponic beds are vertical rather than horizontal. Containers of herbs are fastened to poles with nutrient-laden water dripping down one to another from pipes along the ceiling. Every which way there is something to savor and sniff at tongue and nose level.

The temperature in the greenhouse varies from one end to the other, depending upon the plants’ needs. The air near the entrance is warm and moist and gradually cools toward the far end as the produce goes from Genovese basil, to nasturtiums, and finally on to lettuce. The lettuce is grown in horizontal beds of water. On top of the watery beds are sheets of pressed plastic foam. Small holes in the sheets house the lettuce. For the most part the herbs in the green house are sold to high-end restaurants and grocery stores throughout northern Arizona.

Diane makes it very clear that she is running a business, not some pie-in-the-sky operation. Profit is the bottom line, but it’s not the motive. Raised on a family farm in northern Iowa she wants to reclaim for her children that which she relished as a child, but she wants something else, something in short supply in modern life. Perhaps, her purposes are best summed up in the Ute word for friendly, Tickaboo, friendly to the land and people. Rather than living by the compromising codes of modern corporations, she strives for an authenticity made possible through sustainable agriculture. She wants to work her own land.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

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