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The City Journals

In a Draper suburb, a small farm sprouts

Sep 10, 2020 09:36AM ● By Linnea Lundgren

Seven-year-old Atticus Hailer enjoys eating dill that his dad, Joaquim, grows at Draper’s new Fine Tilth Farm. (Linnea Lundgren/City Journals)

By Linnea Lundgren  |  [email protected]

Two years ago, when the house and land at 12820 S. Fort Street went on the market several buyers emerged, willing to pay above the asking price in order to tear down the home or subdivide the almost-an-acre lot. Joaquim Hailer and his wife Carolyn wanted the land to farm, so they wrote a letter to the seller detailing their dream. They got the house and the land. And local residents, in turn, got to reap the benefits from Draper’s new Fine Tilth Farm. 

Almost every Saturday during harvest season, the Hailers set up a canopy and table on Fort Street offering just-picked vegetable delights ranging from tomatoes—they have more than 210 heirloom and cherry  plants—to baby root veggies, peppers and salad mixes. There are also items not often found at the grocery store such as anise hyssop, the cilantro-esque herb papalo and the pumpkin-like North Georgia candy roaster squash. They also sell their produce online (finetilth.farm) and plan to continue doing so into the winter. 

“It’s my first year and I’ve certainly exceeded my expectations,” Hailer said about his crops and the positive community response. The pandemic and resulting food shortages, he says, have shown people how fragile the food system is and more people have taken an interest in purchasing locally grown food. 

Fine Tilth Farm resides behind the Hailer’s home on about a third of an acre, a plot of land that two years ago was overgrown with weeds, invasive Russian olives and had off-the-chart salt levels in the soil. With a lot of hard work and truckloads of compost it has become, what Hailer quips, “a glorified garden.” There’s row upon row of organically grown vegetables, herbs and flowers, a squash garden, a high tunnel (greenhouse) sheltering tomatoes and peppers (with plans for a second tunnel) and mammoth sunflowers that border the western and northern edges.  

“I like to eat, and I like to grow things, and I like a challenge,” said 44-year-old Hailer, a lifelong vegetarian. “And (farming is) always a huge challenge. No matter how good you get at this, there is always some new hurdle to overcome.”

In the summer, he’s often in the field at 5 a.m. since the biggest challenge has been the heat. “Everything suffers,” he said. He regularly runs overhead sprinklers to cool the crops and to refresh himself takes a siesta. He’s had to contend with other challenges, too, including squash bugs and a springtime infestation of cutworms which had him picking these nocturnal pests off the vegetables by headlamp. 

But among the challenges, there are the many joys: growing beautiful vegetables and flowers, feeding his family what he’s cultivated, and enjoying the wildlife sightings, including a muskrat and garter snakes that live near the irrigation canal west of the farm.

Hard work in the great outdoors is nothing new for Hailer, who after graduating from Cornell University, and “tired of sitting down” headed west to join wildland fire crews in Arizona and Yosemite National Park. He fought fires for four seasons—working with the ground, truck and helicopter crews—and in between worked at Snowbird. It’s there he met his wife, a longtime Snowbird employee, when she offered him a ride down the canyon. Later, he owned his own photography business and for 10 years concentrated on race photography ranging from marathons to mountain bike races. But, the travel became tiresome and after starting a family, he sold that business and turned his attention to being a stay-at-home dad to son Atticus and a full-time urban farmer. 

Hailer said he’s always had a garden, starting as a kid in rural West Virginia where farming was a way of life. On his family’s homestead, his dad raised bees and sold honey and both parents grew all their food. Hailer’s childhood job was weed control, which he didn’t enjoy. 

“I still don’t enjoy pulling weeds, but now I appreciate the concept (of farming) and the work,” he said. 

For the most part, he’s been learning commercial farming on the go. “It’s not rocket science, it’s just putting in the work a lot of the time. I enjoy the work. I enjoy the learning,” he said and added that now is the perfect time to start something like this. “The knowledge is available. (With YouTube tutorials) any detail is at your fingertips. All it takes is a little space and an interest.” 

If all goes well, fall crops should include plenty of salad greens, arugula, spinach, carrots, scallions, onions and winter squash. He has “the eternal hope of a farmer” and next year can’t wait to start experimenting with tomato grafting, growing more exotic Asian greens, and adding edible flowers to his salad mixes.

Being an urban farmer has given him a greater awareness of the many backyard gardens that people in Draper cultivate and he enjoys seeing them. But, for small commercial farming’s future, he’s concerned. “For new farmers or young farmers it is almost impossible to get land. That contributes to my concern about the food system. New people can’t start doing this.” 

“If every neighborhood had a couple of places like mine,” he said, “it would be awesome.”