Big Brain 2012 Finalist: Farmer Woody, a.k.a. John Milton

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You submitted nominations for awards given to the Valley's emerging creatives and the results are in. Introducing our Big Brain 2012 Finalists.

Leading up to the Big Brain Award awards announcement and celebration on April 7Chow Bella and Jackalope Ranch will introduce the finalists.

Up today: Farmer Woody

When you consider the Garfield neighborhood near downtown Phoenix, thoughts might turn to the area's rough-and-tumble history, or its recent popularity among artists and hipsters. But it hardly inspires visions of bucolic landscapes and vegetable gardens.

Unless you're John Milton. Milton, who prefers to be called Farmer Woody, has a goal for Garfield: to turn back the clock nearly 150 years to a time before the area was divided into residential plots -- to transform the historic neighborhood into "The Garfield Gardens."

The project unites his biggest passions: food and farming. Drawn to the kitchen at an early age, Woody began working at the Wigwam Resort on the west side of town at 16. On a trip to a local farm to pick vegetables for the night's dinner service, he realized farming's fundamental role in food production. Not long after, he left the kitchen to pursue a job at Sun Fresh Farms in Litchfield Park.

"It sort of dawned on me, like, 'Wow farmers are even more vital than chefs,'" Woody says. "Yeah, chefs cook food, but it's farmers that make the food."

After losing his father to cancer many years ago, Woody says he began to dream of a place where nature and urban development coincided and where the line between city and scenery blurred -- a place where people with cancer could heal.

He's spent the rest of his life gathering the skills he needs to make the dream a reality, starting in the kitchen but moving far beyond the culinary world.

"I'm kind of building up for it and people are like, 'Wow you might actually build a city,'" Woody says. "It seems like it's possible."

Farmer Woody -- unassuming in a plaid blue button-up, dirty work boots, and a straw farmers hat with two long blond braids trailing out -- doesn't look like a city planner. But labeling him a "farmer" doesn't feel quite right either.

It would be more accurate to call this guy a farmer-construction worker- stonemason-electrician-plumber and general handyman rolled into one. As a boy, watching old-timers like his father -- who, Woody recalls, had the skills to fix and build anything - motivated him to become the ultimate craftsman. For the past two decades he's put in the long days and backbreaking work to live up to his own idea of "a real man."

For today, he wears his Farmer Woody hat -- literally -- as he oversees a group of volunteers working on a 14,000 square foot space near 10th and Pierce streets. He hopes this plot will become not just a space for community improvement, but also a testing ground for future farmers, chefs and backyard gardeners.

The space will house a 3,000 square foot amphitheater for cooking lessons, art demonstrations and live music in addition to a greenhouse, tilapia pond and garden. Also included in the design: a drive with space for two food trucks where Woody would like to see the community's youths taking their first forays into the culinary world. The entire space will be bordered by a white picket fence, and he's already planted a wall of sunflowers to line the north side.

"We've received so much for this project," says Woody, who usually works alone and has used his own money to finance past projects. Valley Leadership helped him secure donations this time; Richard Melikian donated the land. "I have a hard time accepting so much. I want to pay it forward."

With his "business hat" on now, Farmer Woody explains his desire to turn the farm into a cooperative. This summer, he'd like to challenge 18 to 20 year-olds to a "Survivor-style" competition involving hard work on local farms; the winner takes part-ownership of the land. Woody, who currently works at Superstition Farms in Mesa (as well as parttime at Nachobot on Fifth Street), knows first-hand the potential for a farm to become a tourist attraction.

Blue eyes twinkling as he looks out over the piles of mulch and dirt meant to evolve into his most impressive project yet, he explains this is just another stepping stone on his way to something bigger. The vision of his own city keeps him flitting from farm to kitchen to wherever he thinks he's needed for now.

"I'm telling you, this whole neighborhood is going to be one crazy garden," Woody says. "I just want to show the impact of what one small group of people can do in one neighborhood. You can do this everywhere."

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