Let Us 'Agritain' You
Stroll through the leafy groves of Queen Creek Olive Mill just south of Phoenix, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were any place but Arizona. The perception of the 48th state, after all, is a dusty desert where only the hardiest traces of vegetation can survive.
But, as deserts go, Arizona's get lots of rain, and it's way more fertile than you might suppose. From olives to dates, apples, peaches and even lavender, Arizona's farms produce a surprisingly diverse array of produce. And they are happy to share the bounty with visitors.
"You can't get a more true-to-life, authentic experience than being on a farm," says Michelle Streeter, vice president of communications and partner relations at Visit Mesa. "Our farmers, growers, wine masters, brewers – all our makers – are doing amazing things staying true to Arizona's attributes."
Streeter has a privileged perspective on this trend as Mesa and its surrounding environs are home to the lion's share of farms in the Phoenix metro area. These growers have garnered enough attention over the past few years to warrant the development of Visit Mesa's Fresh Foodie Trail—a veritable compendium on the region's farms and gastronomic experiences that visitors can use when planning where to go and what to see. Stops on the trail include Hayden Flour Mills at Sossaman Farms, Schnepf Farms, The Pork Shop, Agritopia, and The Orange Patch.
For those whose appetites extend beyond greater Phoenix, there's ArizonaExperience.org. Not only does this website contain details on everything from the state's wine country to sheep herding, but it also boasts an interactive U-Pick Farm Map that identifies destinations where people can visit and often pick their own produce. Users can search according to a preferred crop or the season, or they can simply click on a geographically convenient icon to find out what's growing nearby.
While the answer to what's growing in Arizona might've once been a choice between citrus or cotton, it is considerably more diverse today. The state ranks second in the country for lemon production and third for tangerines, and crops like lettuce, pecans and broccoli make a strong showing, too.
Queen Creek Olive Mill hosts regular events, like this one, in their grove. (Courtesy of Queen Creek Olive Mill)
And the Arizona farm experience goes far beyond what's growing in the ground. Take Queen Creek Olive Mill as an example. It boasts a grove of 7,000 olive trees, but there are also facility tours and tastings, annual events like the Olivepalooza Harvest Party in November, and a buzzing market where visitors can pick up everything from olive oil to branded balsamic vinegar, stuffed olives, tapenades and an all-natural line of skincare created by co-owner Brenda Rea. (The shop also partners with local vendors to sell coffee, honey, bread, chocolate and more.)
"People want to see where their food is coming from, the process by which it's made and the hands that make it," says Perry Rea, co-owner of Queen Creek Olive Mill and master blender. "It's the 'agritainment' experience people want, so we provide the educational aspect along with the fun. It always has to be fun."
Fun, of course, takes many forms. For some, it's the return to nature. At Fenway Park Orchards in Morristown (50 miles northwest of Phoenix), you can pick apples and peaches for less than $3 a pound, all while drinking in some spectacular views: The orchard is surrounded by hundreds of pine trees.
"Visitors are usually pretty excited about that," says co-owner Alan Fenway. "It feels more like a forest."
The scenery is just as lovely at Folded Hills Orchard, which sits on Oak Creek near Sedona. Owned by 101-year-old Leonard Nawrocki, the orchard yields blackberries, peaches and apricots throughout the summer. Unlike Queen Creek Olive Mill, Folded Hills is a small operation—there are fewer than 100 fruit trees, and the family handles most of the maintenance.
Just as the earth and the weather affect the taste of a given plant, the family behind each farm lends its own flavor to the experience. But no matter where in Arizona you choose to plant or pick, you will likely leave with plenty to chew on.