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Growing Up — Urban Farms Have the Potential to Transform Phoenix

"Farming is a profession," says Greg Peterson, an urban farmer in Phoenix.EXPAND
"Farming is a profession," says Greg Peterson, an urban farmer in Phoenix.
James Deak

When he was a teenager, Greg Peterson turned a stranger’s swimming pool into a catfish farm. He started building fish ponds at 15. He couldn’t drive yet, so his mom shuttled him to jobs in the family’s blue Ford Pinto. At 29, Peterson bought his central Phoenix home, The Urban Farm, where he reared fish for eating the first five years. Now 59, Peterson oversees Urbanfarm.org, hosts a podcast, co-runs The Great American Seed Up and Grow PHX, teaches, and farms his suburban land.

Greg Peterson is, in short, an urban farmer. He estimates there are 2,000 in greater Phoenix.

“A gardener?” Peterson says.“That’s a hobby. Farming is a profession.”

On a recent morning, in a neighborhood of driveways and houses, Peterson — short sleeves, blue jeans, parted hair, black glasses — stands between two garden beds on his quarter-acre property. Fruit trees, sleepy in the weekday sun, create a natural fence along the street. Peterson says he designed his whole front yard to be edible. He says he has 80 fruit trees. As proof, he starts counting them.

He points to two seedlings, naked of fruit but ripe with the promise of future Anna and Dorsett Golden apples. Strolling down his driveway, he explains his urban farming methods: permaculture, an aquaponics system that unites bok choy and mosquito fish, rainwater harvesting, composting, chickens, tree experiments, and much more.

Volunteers tend beds at The Garden of Tomorrow in south Phoenix.EXPAND
Volunteers tend beds at The Garden of Tomorrow in south Phoenix.
James Deak

We pivot onto the front lawn. Peterson calls out kumquat, loquat, and navel oranges. “I eat a shirt ton of navel oranges,” he says.

Peterson walks toward the street, where his pickup truck, painted the color of a blueberry, sits parked. The plate reads: “URBNFRM.”

“11, 12, 13,” he counts, tracing a row of citrus-clad trees, boughs lording over his roadside lettuce and vegetable garden.

He points out two kinds of lemons, Ponderosa and Meyer. He plucks mandarinquats with molten-orange skin, bulbous bodies, and bottlenecks where the fruit narrows to meet its stem. “You actually put the whole thing in your mouth,” he says, chomping into the tart, bursting core and smacking his lips.

“28, 29, 30.”

He calls out limes and apricots, Beauty plums and cherry-plum hybrids, little-known varieties of peaches. “You ever heard of a jujube?” he says, passing a garden bed of cowpeas and oxalis that hugs his front porch. “It’s a chocolatey-candy-tasting thing. They’re amazing.”

I ask: “With all this fruit, do you sell at some farmers markets?”

“Nope.”

I squint. “You eat it all?”

“Pretty much,” he replies. “Eat it and share it ... With the exception of apples and citrus, I don’t have an overabundance. We grow enough for us.”

Later, when we’re among the coops and compost of the backyard, Peterson lays out his theory of farming. “I think the solution, capital ‘T,’ to our food problem on this planet is growing food in the cities,” he says. “And I think it’s a decentralized model to get people like you and I growing food in our front and backyard.”

He and other urban farmers have many reasons for what they do. One tends to be helping to move our food systems out of their deep-cut global and national channels, pivoting to more local production. Growing more food locally, especially right in your yard or at a garden down the block, writ large across thousands of neighborhoods and millions of homes, has the potential to make our food systems more resilient.

Long power outages can disrupt a food system like ours — beef coming from the Midwest, blueberries from Peru. So can powerful storms, which are growing stronger due to climate change. And lately, we’ve seen the severe limitations of our food system when put through the test of a deadly pandemic.

Would people be hoarding soup, eggs, and yeast if we were more attuned to our natural growing cycles? If we had small farms in our neighborhoods or yards?

Peterson does, and they fuel his income and diet. In a year, Peterson sells some 5,000 plants and fruit tree graftings. He also profits from other endeavors, including classes he holds digitally and at The Urban Farm. But, as evidenced by the free classes Peterson offers around town, he teaches for reasons beyond income and education — reasons of pleasure, flavor, resiliency, and necessity.

“We have 4.8 million people in the Valley,” he says. “We’re going to need thousands of farms.”

In the last three decades, global urban agriculture has grown sharply. Cuba alone has more than a quarter-million urban farms. Half the world lives in cities, projected to snowball to about two-thirds by 2050. In a warming, urbanizing, overpopulating world, city growing can be a pillar of the sustainable food systems we need.

The Valley has sustained agriculture for nearly two millennia. But in recent years, farming has been eroding. The change is largely due to growth and urbanization. From July 2017 to July 2018, Maricopa County was the fastest-growing county in the nation. Peek at a population chart of Phoenix (107,000 people in 1950, 1.7 million people now) or at now-and-then maps of towns like Gilbert (green a century ago, subdivisions today), and you’ll gather what farmers have long known.

Land here is attractive — rich in many ways. But it is volatile, locked in a steady but radical state of change.

Tempted by seven-figure land sales and confronted by the prospect of severe water shortages on the near horizon, farmers have been selling to developers. In our fertile desert basin that has produced corn, beans, and squash for many centuries, agriculture is being expelled.

“What little bit of farmland is in the west Valley; developers are putting houses on it,” says Bob McClendon of McClendon Organic Selects, who keeps a 25-acre urban plot in Peoria and rural acreage in Goodyear. “Farming is disappearing at an alarming rate in the west Valley. That has already happened in the east Valley.”

One might reason that agriculture, priced out of Phoenix and its near radius, might simply migrate steadily farther from town, the citrus and alfalfa fields sliding forever just beyond an ever-expanding urban rim.

Not quite. McClendon notes that above Highway 101’s northern sweep, soil contains too much sand, granite, and “no organic matter whatsoever.” On the far west side, “soil is still farmable but becomes pretty alkaline.” Terrifying water concerns needle all Arizona farms, especially those farther from the water-rich urban grid.

Among other things, this steady decline of farmable land strikes at the core of Phoenix’s identity. After all, three of Arizona’s five Cs are agricultural: citrus, cotton, and cattle. If ag is to live on as one of the engines of our economy amid current land-use patterns, at a certain point it will become necessary to grow food within the sprawl.

As it happens, progressive minds with ties to Arizona have been pondering this scenario on and off over the last 100 years.

In the 1920s, before taking up seasonal living in Scottsdale’s Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright built the model for his Platonic city, Broadacre City. A 1991 article in Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly describes urban ag’s seminal role: “In studying the models one of the most obvious characteristics of Broadacre City is that it contains many small farmsteads and houses intermingled. Virtually every freestanding house has some agricultural land attached to it.” Paolo Soleri, a Wright student, took a similar approach. In the 2012 book Lean Linear City, thinkers from Soleri’s Cosanti Foundation fleshed out a city vision based on Soleri’s Arcology. The book describes long, tight cities, flanked by multistory greenhouses and terraced orchards. Farms quilt the adjacent land.

The Farm at Agritopia.EXPAND
The Farm at Agritopia.
Agritopia

One such plan even has been realized. In 2001, Joe Johnston broke ground on Agritopia in Gilbert. The land, which bears evidence of canals used for ancient farming, was first settled by Westerners in 1927. Johnston’s father eventually came to own the property. He farmed cotton, wheat, beets, alfalfa, and silage corn. Johnston started hoeing cotton fields when he was 7 or 8.

By the 1990s, though, Gilbert was developing, and the Johnston family was pondering the future.

“My dad was getting out of farming,” Johnston recalls. “He didn’t really want to farm in the urban environment.”

Instead, the Johnstons decided to build Agritopia: a showcase of how agriculture could enhance urban living, and vice versa.

At Agritopia, residences and growing areas are combined within a single community, planned so that each is immersed in the other. A full-time farm staff manages the land, and residents can be as involved as they want to be. They can purchase its produce, maintain community gardens, attend orchard dinners, or simply walk beside the fields, smelling citrus and herbs on the wind.

“Agritopia was our version of how to steward the land,” Johnston says. “We wanted the farm to be the center of the community, wanted the farm to be visible from the road.”

Today, Agritopia’s 160 acres house 2,000 people close to its orchards, gardens, and row crops, which together cover 12 acres. Under the guidance of Farm Director Katie Critchley, Agritopia grows 80 to 100 kinds of edible plants. It has 14 beehives. Fruit trees thrive in a green expanse on the south end. There are row crop parcels, 50 community garden plots, chickens, grapevines, and a few restaurants that use the farm’s output, the commerce clustered south along Ray Road. Homes stand beside the orchard, beyond the farm, overlooking the viridescent comb of fennel and kale and carrot plants.

Agritopia’s USDA-certified organic farm earns money via one-off produce sales, Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA subscriptions, tiny farm shares that people prepay for, receiving periodic produce in return), u-pick events, weddings, and special dinners. It has a halcyon feeling — a milieu that tunnels beyond the concrete and glass of suburban living and even the present day. Part of this is Johnston’s planning. For instance, one set of row homes without backyards is bounded by an orchard, tinging them bucolic.

Johnston freely notes that Agritopia’s farm isn’t a production powerhouse, and that urban farms can’t match or replace industrial agriculture’s output. “On a straight production mindset, it [urban agriculture] doesn’t make as much sense as when you start talking about social benefit,” he says.

Critchley echoes him, citing the ageless satisfaction and sense of community that urban agriculture can carry, even to folks who only participate by buying: “It’s hard for me to tell somebody to pay triple what they would normally pay for their lettuce without giving them some kind of good feeling.”

Why do visionaries like Wright, Soleri, and Johnston incorporate agriculture into moonshot urban designs? To tap into benefits far beyond production.

Urban agriculture can bring fresh produce to food deserts, areas lacking food access. It can curb food miles — our fruits and vegetables travel thousands — thereby reducing carbon emissions (and reducing agriculture’s contribution to climate change). It can improve nutrition, as far-shipped crops are picked early (before nutritional fullness) and bleed away nutrients in transit. It can teach skills, educate, save empty space, unite communities, and foster a more intimate connection to the only planet we have.

In Phoenix, urban agriculture can keep alive the ancient tradition of farming, threatened this century by growth and water scarcity. It can keep non-growers conscious of the fact that, hey, an artichoke comes from a plant, and a chicken doesn’t grow on a tree.

Urban farms in greater Phoenix come in a wondrous range of forms and colors — many acres, just a few, vertical, horizontal, downtown, on the town’s edge. They might take the form of Bob McClendon’s acreage in Peoria, or Greg Peterson’s yard of fruit trees. FARMi is a Gilbert coop that raises chickens, more than 700 eggs a week, and pastured ducks. The Farm at South Mountain is a multiuse plot supplying three on-property restaurants. DaNelle Wolford has a 440,000-subscriber YouTube channel called “Weed ’em & Reap” devoted to her Nigerian Dwarf goat operation in Phoenix. Some urban farms are found inside shipping containers, like the lettuce grower Pure Greens, or indoor grow houses like Southwest Mushrooms, ripe with lion’s mane and pink oyster fungi just west of the I-17.

What constitutes an “urban farm” hasn’t yet calcified. But given the many varieties, it makes sense to use an expansive definition, one with the pliability to capture core examples but also the folks at Quail & Kale Urban Farms, who raise quail in their yard and sell tiny speckled eggs at the Uptown Phoenix Farmers Market.

So: An urban farm isn’t rural. It exists in a city or suburbia. It also isn’t simple gardening. There has to be an additional element, whether sharing, selling, or living off the land — some multiplier that vaults the project beyond hobbyist growing.

Queen Creek’s La Campagna, a 2.4-acre property with growing space in a former horse arena, fits this loose definition. Lauren Inferna runs La Campagna full time with the part-time help of her husband, Frank Inferna, a psychology professor at ASU. The two raise chickens for eggs and heritage Kunekune pigs. Butchered by Arcadia Meat Market, the pigs are sold in “pork shares,” 20-pound boxes of meat. La Campagna also grows specialty vegetables, including edible flowers, badger-flame beets, and Chinese pink celery. Until the coronavirus ruptured our restaurant scene, you could have could have tasted them at leading restaurants like Cotton & Copper and FnB.

“The goal is to grow a little bit of everything,” Inferna says. “So it’s homesteading and feeding us first. Extra vegetables we sell.”

Also in Queen Creek is the three-acre Rhiba Farms, where Mark Rhine grows microgreens, mushrooms, root crops, fruit trees, and oddball crops like Neomexicana hops (a rare hop in that it can prosper in the Southwest). He irrigates using groundwater from a 700-foot well, which is crucial given the rationing of Colorado River water to Pinal County farms. Rhine also keeps chickens, ducks, and sheep. He practices rotational grazing, a process whereby sheep eat grass, fowl follow in and pick bugs from the sheep dung, then Rhine spreads compost on top.

Like much of Queen Creek, Rhine’s environs have become suburban.

“Across the street, it’s row housing,” he says. “The houses are 10 feet apart. My section? Horse properties.”

Urban farming is hard work in Rhine’s neighborhood or any, whether raising livestock or heirloom squash, whether in the city or a developing town like Queen Creek. For growers in all parts of Phoenix, though, the increasingly vital profession might soon get a little easier.

Prickly Pear at Spaces of Opportunity.EXPAND
Prickly Pear at Spaces of Opportunity.
Chris Malloy

In fall 2019, researchers mostly from Arizona State University published a report on urban agriculture’s potential in Phoenix. The five-person team — which included Nicholas Clinton of Google and ASU geographic sciences and urban planning professor Matei Georgescu — used Google Earth Engine to consider how urban farming could advance the city of Phoenix’s sustainability goals, officially called the 2050 Environmental Sustainability Goals.

The study focused on three kinds of growing areas: vacant lots, idle rooftops, and building facades (for vertical farming — plant rows stacked on a vertical plane). It found that urban agriculture could provide 183,000 tons of fresh produce per year. This output, the paper said, would meet 90 percent of Phoenix’s fresh produce consumption (based on national consumption patterns).

“We can definitely produce a significant amount of food locally,” says Nazli Aragon, ASU graduate student and the study’s lead author.

According to her team, 28 square miles (5.4 percent of Phoenix proper) are suitable for urban agriculture. If the vacant lots in this city land (roughly a third of the 28 square miles) were converted to urban farms and gardens, the number of people lacking access to public parks would be reduced by 60 percent. All said, the paper found that urban agriculture could help Phoenix reach its 2050 sustainability goals by shrinking food deserts (51 percent of Phoenicians live in one), creating more green space, and cutting carbon emissions (rooftop farms give buildings added insulation, lowering energy use).

Last month, the city of Phoenix demonstrated that it agrees. On March 4, the City Council approved the 2025 Phoenix Food Action Plan in a 7 to 2 vote.

The plan calls for adopting more favorable zoning and land use guidelines, promoting mixed-use agricultural land, revising codes to clear obstacles to urban ag, pursuing grants, collaborating with partners, and promoting education. Though much of the plan lists broad, abstract goals, some are defined with a specificity that allows us to see how they, if met, would benefit urban farmers.

For one: The plan targets more flexible zoning. Now, zoning tends to rankle many urban farmers, like Rhine, who, though based outside of Phoenix proper, has said that his county wants him in commercial zoning. This would mean steeper taxes and stiffer requirements, such as installing water “catch basins” that would cost thousands of dollars.

Aiming at zoning quandaries, the plan calls for the city to “develop more streamlined processes of agricultural zoning.” It calls for giving zoning deeper nuance, allowing for urban agriculture like rooftop farming, hydroponics, and aquaponics to more cleanly fit into zoning categories (rather than ambiguously straddling them). The goal is to update city zoning so that, for instance, an urban farmer building a greenhouse would meet separate requirements from a construction company building totally different structures. It even suggests exploring a new zoning category and a zoning incentive model.

Again, zoning is one of many five-year targets. Many require further research, which will result in future recommendations. Even though parts of the plan are amorphous as of yet, the plan seeks to address concrete urban food system needs.

More broadly, the plan acknowledges current shortcomings in the city. For example, Maricopa County did $1.95 billion in agricultural sales in 2015. In 2017, it was in the top 1 percent of counties for growing certain crops like melons and potatoes. Yet food insecurity here hovers around 14 percent.

“Despite our agricultural capacity and national leadership,” the 2025 plan reads, “our food system is not working for many people in Maricopa County, especially low-income, ethnic minorities, seniors, and children.”

Rosanne Albright, environmental programs coordinator of the city’s Office of Environmental Programs, orchestrated and is now charged with implementing the 2025 plan. She believes that urban farms and distribution systems are pivotal to curbing food insecurity — one piece of the city’s long-term sustainability goals.

“One of the things people typically say is, ‘Let’s just put in a grocery store,’” she says. “Well, a grocery store isn’t always the best model to put in some neighborhoods … but there are other options.”

Those other options include, she says, urban gardens and greenhouses, raising plants vertically and in storage containers. Looking ahead, Albright says, “We want to think about new ways of growing food.”

On a February morning in south Phoenix, people tend wood-framed garden beds. Black soil and plants fill the gray-faded boxes, spread through sparse grass in parallel to East Broadway Road. A chain link fence lops the garden from the street, but the fence has been opened, inviting volunteers through.

A group planting session at Spaces of Opportunity in south Phoenix.EXPAND
A group planting session at Spaces of Opportunity in south Phoenix.
James Deak

Those already inside bend and kneel, working. One volunteer, a teen wearing headphones and a sweatshirt, harvests leafy greens. Another, an elderly gentleman in a baseball cap, sweatshirt, and tight khakis — who I’m soon told just finished an eight-year prison sentence — stuffs a bag with fresh pickings. The gardeners are silent but for the rustling of plants, all careful focus, with just a quick nod for an inbound stranger.

A worn pickup truck rumbles into the 1.5-acre garden, and out pops Darren Chapman. His nonprofit, TigerMountain Foundation, manages this community garden. It’s called the Garden of Tomorrow.

For 13 years, TigerMountain has used urban farming to help community members learn new skills, access food, come together, and, for those who have been recently freed from incarceration, take a positive path back into society.

“Our neighborhood is a billion-dollar prison pipeline,” Chapman says, greeting volunteers as they arrive. “I’ve been behind bars eight times in my life … Our organization is built around trying to keep young cats, trying to keep their parents, in a better conversation. So that the billion-dollar prison pipeline turns into dollars back into our community.”

Chapman’s foundation has a hand in three urban gardens, totaling 27 acres. He has a prep kitchen and office space for classroom education. To sell its bounty, TigerMountain utilizes CSAs, farmers markets, and restaurants. Chapman estimates that thousands of people have worked in his gardens. This includes not only people with legal and drug troubles, but also students, doctors, politicians — people of all ages and races who need soil.

Chapman and his team have cultivated partnerships and won grants, including a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. “As nontraditional as we are, we are a best-practice model throughout the United States of America for how to do this work,” he says.

He likens the ability of TigerMountain to help locals trapped in a cycle of incarceration to the Trojan horse, the classical Greeks’ ruse that broke a 10-year stalemate in the Trojan War.

“At some point during the night, man, folks came out of that Trojan horse with weapons of mass destruction,” Chapman says. “We actually have shovels, rakes, incredible land usage … That land now bears weapons of mass construction.”

The previous Saturday, Chapman and community garden manager Bruce Babcock planted 100 fruit trees with 30 to 40 volunteers on the 20-acre plot they share with other nonprofits, a south Phoenix expanse called Spaces of Opportunity. With each Saturday event or everyday morning outing, the makeup of volunteers shifts.

Hearing his name called, Chapman walks away. But not before welcoming Sindy Marquez, a relatively new TigerMountain volunteer.

Marquez stands with her son, Caesar Lopez, and her grandson, Calvin. Her grandson prances around a bed of pepper plants. Lopez sticks with two friends new to the garden, waiting to start work.

Sindy starts to explain the virtues of TigerMountain. “We’re living in a society where we’re starving for vegetables —”

“— where someone would rather smoke a joint than eat an apple,” Lopez finishes.

Marquez just completed a 15-year prison sentence three weeks before. In Perryville prison, she started a garden using donated seeds and compost she made from “old food out of the chow hall.” She connected with Chapman and, as her release neared, he asked her to work with him. Now, she’s attending board meetings and writing grant applications.

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Lopez says he was also incarcerated. His friends new to the garden, Kaharyree Davis and Jay Stanley, have had their own issues. Marquez brought them to the garden because she knew their moms in prison, and the mothers wanted their newly released friend to keep their kids out of trouble. All three young friends — Lopez, Stanley, and Davis — are hoping for a way to change their community, for new beginnings.

“It’s a big family get-together,” Stanley says, watching people pile bags of newly picked greens on a table, ready to be taken to the community kitchen for premarket washing and processing. “People grow up not having family.”

Davis looks around, mentions the liquor store up the street, the one up the next street, the nearby dirt hills. “I’m a fighter, a two-time Golden Glove champion — the only one south Phoenix has had,” he says, eyes on the garden. “This has been here since I was a kid. I never knew what it was. Now I came here and I’m about to find out.”

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