September in St. Johns: Apache County Fair

Reader Contribution by Regina Hitchcock
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Gardeners all over the state grow delicious vegetables, fruits, herbs, and even grains for their nourishment, enjoyment, and to share with friends and family. A unique aspect of living in the county seat of St. Johns is being able to see a vast number of products people in our area are producing in their gardens each year. 

I’ve been the head of the Field Crops department of the Apache County Fair for several years, and it never ceases to amaze me at some of the amazing things that come into the fair that Wednesday morning. What amazes me even more are the stories that go along with some of those entries and the challenges gardeners tell me about as we sit at the table and fill out fair entry tags. 

Take John Bennett for example. He’s been growing, showing, and winning at the Apache County Fair for decades. In fact, he’s one of the biggest exhibitors every year. He tells of a pink banana squash that he grows over in Springerville, that he’s been growing for nearly as long as he remembers. He says that some of the biggest challenges is knowing from year to year where the squash will pop up. As an organic gardener, he composts all of his plant waste and inevitably some viable squash seeds end up in the compost that gets spread all over his garden site. 

Another big exhibitor who has been growing and showing in Apache County for a long time is Heather Higginbotham, daughter of Rick and Lorie Williams, who own Boondocks Farm and who used to have the job I now have at the Apache County Fair. Heather and her son Karsin win top honors every year for their produce, just like mom and dad did a mere ten years ago. Heather makes the most amazing fruit jams and jellies and sells them at the local Heritage Market through summer and fall, as well, and I can attest at the amazing flavor of the local produce. One of the things they battle on their farm is unpredictable weather. Late-summer hail storms have decimated plants in the past. Late spring freezes have also been a challenge as fruit trees start to flower and bud. This area is known for the challenging weather patterns above all else. 

During this year’s fair, I talked to a bunch of people who have recently moved in or are currently looking at moving in, and seeing the fair gives them hope. But true to the spirit of my blog and why we started the Gardeners with Altitude garden club ten years ago, I had to let them know of the unique challenges they may be facing. It is really easy to see this abundance on these shelves and believe that throwing some seeds out onto the ground would lead to an abundant harvest. “Nay, nay,” said one of our local gardeners. “Do not believe that this sort of produce will be grown easily, particularly out east of town where all the land is going for so cheap. There’s no water. There’s three solid months of drying winds. The ground is as hard as a rock and the pH is so high that even if you can get the soil broken down into something workable, your plants won’t be able to access nutrients like boron, iron, or calcium. Soil that grows this kind of produce requires decades of working and tons of water. Without a well, you could go broke just hauling water from town.”

The Apache County Fair is not only a fun time for all involved, thanks to chairpersons Josh and Annie Anderson, but it is a time to learn a lot about how gardening in southern Apache County works. It is a time to listen and talk with neighbors, glean the wisdom of “old-timers”, and really get the low-down about how to be a successful organic gardener in St. Johns, Springerville, Concho, Vernon, Alpine, and many other little towns in this area. It is one of the only FREE county fairs in the state and would love to see Mother Earth News readers visit if anyone happens to be in the area. 

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