Elegy for a Fruit-Treed Laveen Farm Near South Mountain

The Pinnacle Farms farmstand stands in Laveen.
The Pinnacle Farms farmstand stands in Laveen. Chris Malloy
Pomegranates hang, ripe with juice. Birds pick at fallen fruit between the trees, dart from lane to lane, perch, look. The peach trees, harvested in late spring, yellow in the hot early fall sun. The lemons are bagged and ready at the farm stand closer to the country road, where you pay by the honor system. Sun oozes. South Mountain looms near but far. And heritage chickens squawk, shrilling the fronds of the date trees.

“I didn’t know a date palm from a fan palm when I bought the place,” says Janna Anderson, head of Pinnacle Farms in Laveen. “I started looking at them and I said, ‘Hey, those are dates, aren’t they?’ They’re all in really awkward places. We’ve preserved them even when they’re in the middle of the driveway.”

click to enlarge A pomegranate heavy with juice ripens. - CHRIS MALLOY
A pomegranate heavy with juice ripens.
Chris Malloy
Date palms grow on the dusty rectangle of Pinnacle at erratic intervals. Other, easier-to-harvest fruit trees are ordered into neat rows like comb teeth, tubed with irrigation and separated by leafy pavings of alfalfa, a cover crop. But the soaring date palms go their own way, rising with majesty and anarchy.

Some bend near the adobe farmhouse, built in 1934.

Some can even shade the chickens, who lay at least four dozen eggs a day.

All palms now bearing fruit are Maktooms, a varietal brought to the U.S. from Iraq shortly before the first World War. In many ways, Pinnacle Farms and the small, unheralded farms in its bucolic vicinity are vestiges of the past, remnants of why Phoenix was settled: fertile soil, fecund potential, a history of farming going back millennia.

By the mid-20th century, dates had become a celebrated Arizona crop, though today that culture is largely relegated to Yuma. Nonetheless, Anderson grows rare dates on land part of a property subdivided many times over the decades. She grows common fruit and row crops on these acres, another seven-acre plot, and a 50-acre stretch in the west Valley. She sells at her on-site farm stand, and to a few local restaurants.

Tratto. Persepshen. Hotel Valley Ho. Plus, third-party distributors.

click to enlarge View south out over some peach trees. - CHRIS MALLOY
View south out over some peach trees.
Chris Malloy
Though Anderson grows top-notch produce and is quick to talk Armenian cucumbers and I’itoi onions, she is quicker to talk obstacles to farming. Government red tape. The steady rise of housing developments and the pressure they exert. (We live in the fastest-growing county in America, a trajectory that doesn’t bode well for farming.) The elements. The hours and the income. The fickle nature of supply and demand.

In light of so many high hurdles, why even farm at all?

click to enlarge Janna Anderson walks through her farm. - CHRIS MALLOY
Janna Anderson walks through her farm.
Chris Malloy
“I ask myself that a lot,” Anderson says. “But I love what I do … And I think it is really necessary. People need to understand how we do what we do. 'Cause if you don’t know where your food comes from, you have issues. You need to have a little understanding about it.”

Pinnacle is far from an industrial operation — something suggested by its tents and AirBnB trailers. Anderson grows food with integrity, farming without spray. She uses Salt River Project water, irrigating her fields with a mixture of flood and drip irrigation. She pays her laborers well, “$30 every two hours,” making it hard for her to compete with south-of-the-border farms, which pay “$30 a week.”

The eggs at Pinnacle open to yolk the color of freshly squeezed orange juice. The dates are meaty and sticky with syrup, and the onions sizzle with zing. But despite quality, high-end produce brings in a mere cash trickle. “People don’t want to spend their paycheck on produce,” Anderson says. “They buy cheap lemons.”

Anderson supplements the income she makes from farming with a bevy of secondary sources.

click to enlarge I'itoi onions, Armenian cucumbers, and okra from Pinnacle Farms. - CHRIS MALLOY
I'itoi onions, Armenian cucumbers, and okra from Pinnacle Farms.
Chris Malloy
The AirBnB units provide an even boost. She keeps bee boxes, contracting with a local beekeeper for honey production. Another farm pickles some of her products — eggs, beets, okra, and so on — for sale at her stand. Long term, Anderson hopes to turn her main property with date palms and abrupt, musical chicken screeches into an agritourism spot, and maybe even one with an eatery.

For now, it’s picking ripe eggplant and red-purple okra.

For now, it’s harvesting dates, replanting their cuttings, and hoping new palms will grow.

click to enlarge Chickens doing chicken things. - CHRIS MALLOY
Chickens doing chicken things.
Chris Malloy
For now, it’s watching new houses rise and property values increase, the land passing steadily from its agricultural roots into something more modern.

For now, it’s gritting against the sea of obstacles and proceeding with fall planting. It started at the 50-acre plot in Waddell right around last month's autumnal equinox. “We’re flexible,” Anderson says. “We’re not stuck on a certain date. It’s complicated.”

The piercing chicken calls and sun pulsing your skin pull you, walking the farm, again and again back to the present — to the adobe house and the date palms, the pickled eggs and chain-link patterns on plump heritage chickens, to the camping tents leaking twangy music.

Anderson says, gesturing out over the land. “This area really is so many awesome farms that nobody knows about."
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy