We met Amy Binkley at her small urban farm in Central Phoenix on a cold December afternoon. Recent rains had saturated her rows of dirt and vegetables, and as we began our interview, she was still knocking a thick layer of mud from the soles of her boots.
Binkley co-owns four Valley restaurants with her husband, chef Kevin Binkley: Binkley's, Bink's Midtown, Cafe Bink, and Bink's Kitchen + Bar Scottsdale. While Central Phoenix may seem a strange place to grow produce for the restaurants of a James Beard Award-nominated chef, Amy doesn't see it that way at all. She says her husband heard about the space, and after attending a meeting decided it would be the right place for them to begin a small urban farm.
Binkley's six plots stretch in the middle of the New Roots community farm, an independent program run by the International Rescue Committee at PHX Renews. A subsidiary of Keep Phoenix Beautiful, PHX Renews offers community gardeners and various organizations the opportunity to grow plants, learn about sustainable practices, and create public art. Passersby can see into the space, located at Indian School Road and Central Avenue, which has been transformed from a vacant lot into a miniature oasis.
After years of managing the back end of the restaurants, taking care of paperwork and customer service, Binkley was happy to take over the farm in February 2015. She confesses that she is introverted and found the customer service work more "taxing than most people do." But she says she is happy to be outdoors, learning to grow food and care for the small farm.
Although Binkley says she is new to farming, learning as she goes, gardening did play a role in her early life in central Pennsylvania. She says that she grew up with her parents' huge garden, which provided food for their family. They canned tomatoes, made sauce from apples growing on their trees, and when they had beans and peas, they flash froze them for future use. It was very much sustenance gardening, she says. It was a part of her parents' upbringing which they carried over into their children's lives as well.
The garden plot is a strategic and complimentary part of the Binkleys' restaurants. While her husband's is the face of the business, Amy Binkley's work in the farm is of critical importance to their business. She doesn't mind not being the forefront of their enterprise, she says. Neither she nor her husband desired notoriety or fame. Instead, there is a balance between them that serves them well. "I'm the anchor and he's the boat," she says.
Despite Binkley's humility when it comes to her farming skills, her talents already are being appreciated around the Valley. Even before she started her plot at New Roots, she was asked to give a talk at Shamrock Farms in June 2014 about growing food. She says that she initially thought "Why me?" but quickly found that people greatly appreciated her speech. She also has been asked to lead a class for her fellow urban farmers at PHX Renews about how to prepare and cook the things they grow.
Binkley says she is able to get advice from other local farmers, such as Dave Jordan of Two Wash Ranch and Pat Duncan of Duncan Family Farm in Litchfield Park. The other farmers at New Roots also help her, she says. One neighboring farmer in particular, Tariq, sometimes offers Binkley help and has even given her seeds. "I asked him about peas once and showed him the packet I was going to plant, and he said, 'No, no' and handed me some of the peas he had been growing," she says with a laugh.
Binkley says she is still experimenting with what works and what doesn't, but she tries to make it to her rows every day to continue her progress. Some days are better than others, however. Earlier in the year, a water leak in the pipes at PHX Renews deprived her rows for a dangerous period of time. When running properly, the irrigation can sometimes over-water her plants, and she says she lost her spinach crop earlier in the year due most likely to too much of it. But the water is free to her, she says, so she doesn't complain, even if some days she shows up to flooded rows that prohibit her from doing much work at all.
In the winter months, Binkley grows heartier plants that can withstand the Valley's cooler temperatures. While she isn't worried about the occasional frost — "there's a lot of city heat in this area," she says — she still makes an effort to plant things that will thrive through the season. Her rows are full of young sprouts, and while this causes them to look somewhat bare, she says she plants the radishes up front because they grow the fastest. When the beets fill in, the garden looks more green, she jokes.
Other plants in Binkley's rows include nasturtium and borage, which will produce edible flowers, as well as carrots, arugula, and daikon radishes. One of the biggest benefits of the farm for Binkley and her husband is their ability to decide on which plants to grow and at what time they will be harvested. Her husband can request a certain vegetable to be used in a special way in their restaurant — tiny radishes, young arugula — and know they will have the control to harvest it when ready.
So far, the main dish the produce has gone toward is an amuse bouche at Binkley's
in Cave Creek. The small radishes are served with French butter and salt, and she says the greens are so tender that the the radish is served whole. Earlier in the year, her husband created a dish with young carrots, served blanched with a ranch foam. Binkley says that almost all parts of each plant will be used, including the beet greens she will cull as she thins their row.
In February, Binkley will harvest the remainder of her winter crop and plant more radishes, carrots, peas, as well as herbs such as basil, tarragon, and oregano. Beginning in May and June, she will dedicate the majority of her six rows to okra and the rest to whatever plants will be hearty enough to withstand the summer heat. Okra thrives well, she says, and so does basil. When two of her five basil plants died earlier in the year, she was disheartened, but quickly realized that basil "loves the heat." One plant was enough to supply the entire restaurant, with more to spare. Each day she had to prune back the abundant flowers from her basil plants, which, like the beet greens, were used in one of her husband's dishes.
The daily demands of farming at New Roots occupies much of Binkley's time, so she doesn't yet have a garden at her home near the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. She says she would like one, but her three dogs, one of which has a talent for digging, prohibit much progress. And at any rate, her hands are kept busy — and dirty — by tending her already thriving rows.