When Zach and Nancy Brooks want to get away for the weekend, they head to their Phoenix farmhouse near South Mountain Park and Preserve and the couple’s 400,000 worms.
The Brooks own Arizona Worm Farm, a 10-acre swath of land that the two have converted from fields of cotton to an operation that thrives on food waste and an unending passion for sustainability.
About eight months ago, the couple put the finishing touches on the farmhouse they built for themselves on the land, making it easier for them to tend to their growing business than if they had continued to spend weekends in the north Phoenix home they’ve owned for 21 years.
“We don’t really have to bring anything,” Nancy Brooks said of weekends spent in their energy-efficient farmhouse. “We just roll out of bed.”
Where traditional farmhouses feature pitched rooflines and elevated front porches, the home the Brooks built for themselves includes the simple luxuries they’re used to while incorporating practical, eco-conscious elements such as a water-saving toilet and a compost bin recessed into the garden on their front patio.
“Our north star is 10 families on 10 acres, living on sun, soil and water,” Zach Brooks said. “The farm is on a trajectory to be fully sustainable.”
For the Brooks, it means their farmhouse’s front yard includes equipment and outbuildings that most other homes in Phoenix don’t. If they open the slatted-steel doors that enclose the front patio their greenhouse, one of their chicken coops and their worm enclosure are all within sight.
When they take a few steps off the porch, they see a massive covered garden positioned just adjacent to a covered structure that houses an impressive haul of compost.
A shipping container just beyond that holds thousands of larvae for the black soldier flies that they breed on site, and a roomy shed nearby acts as their storefront, where visitors can stop by to take a class or purchase farm-fresh eggs, compost, worms or worm castings.
Considering the likelihood of experiencing a messy weekend at their farm, the Brooks were inclined to build an outdoor shower into their farmhouse, which can be accessed from inside and outside the house.
“It’s great when you’re dirty,” Nancy said.
And getting dirty is a given, more often for Zach than Nancy. The Arizona Worm Farm is a product of his desire to return to school and earn a second master’s degree in sustainability.
“This is all him,” Nancy said, as she worked the cash register.
And his passion for the concept cannot be overstated.
“Worms are awesome pets,” Zach said as he tried to inject confidence into about 20 visitors who listened during a compost class. “You can neglect them for a long time and they will be okay.”
But Zach does anything but neglect any detail on the farm. He can recite just about any fact or benefit about the worms, including how their waste contains the perfect biological components to help plants fight off diseases. So, the farm is pesticide and herbicide free, by design.
He even knows how to identify different parts of a worm.
“Do you know how to tell the difference between the head of the worm and the tail?” he said as the class he was leading walked away from the farm’s two-worm beds. “Tickle its belly and see what side moves.”
And when he realizes that what he thought he knew was wrong, he adjusts, which is why the farm now includes a habitat and an over-sized, waste-infused snack bar for those black soldier flies. The flies, which live for only three days, produce larvae that act as protein and fat-producing machines and live off of food waste that otherwise couldn’t be composted.
“They love junk food,” Zach said of the larvae, which end up being protein-and-fat-rich food for the farm’s multiple chickens spread across two coops. “This is really recycling.”
Their efforts don’t end with the worms. Beyond building and living in an efficient home on site, the Brooks, who wear shirts that say “Straight Outta Compost,” capture rain water in a 250,000-gallon retention pond, they utilize a solar water heater, and they are looking at purchasing a diesel converter so their equipment can run on corn-based fuel.
“There’s nothing here we invented,” Zach said as his class marveled at a machine that sifted and separated compost to reveal the precious worm castings.
All of the equipment, each of the buildings including their farmhouse, and all the critters and homegrown food on site gets them one step closer to their ultimate goal.
“We just want to be fully sustainable, and be off the grid,” Nancy said.
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