Agritourism flourishes in the Valley of the Sun

In a time when fresh, organic eating is on the forefront of many consumers’ minds, a handful of farmers in the valley are working to bring interest to the process behind the produce that ends up in kitchens nationwide. Local favorites like Schnepf Farms, the Queen Creek Olive Mill and The Farm at Agritopia invite the community to take a hands-on approach to the food they eat by touring the farms, learning about agriculture and buying fresh produce onsite. These farms embody the concept of agritourism as they encourage community involvement through tours, classes, farmers markets, tastings, festivals and U-pick produce days.

Agritopia developer Joe Johnston believes that this hands-on approach to food “helps us to be thankful for our food and also to see that it is not rocket science. Most of us can garden and most of us can convert produce into delicious food. This gives us confidence and enjoyment as we stop seeing food as something only professionals can grow and make.” Farms and mills that invite the community to experience the growing process firsthand are encouraging a more positive view of food and those who grow it.

The Farm at Agritopia

The Farm Stand at AgritopiaIn the heart of Gilbert, nestled against the busy San Tan Freeway, you’ll find a cozy community with a small-town feel. Agritopia is a neighborhood that is centered around a 16-acre certified organic farm. Johnston, who was raised on the farm when his parents grew wheat and cotton, designed the neighborhood with the intention of “integrating agriculture and community.” Furthermore, the purpose of Agritopa is to feel like a village. “Traditional villages tend to have farming on the outskirts of the village — we just put it in the middle,” says Johnston. “Farming teaches life lessons to the members of the village and is a source of beauty and open space.” Residents, community members and visitors are invited to rent a 400-square-foot plot in the organic community garden, where enough produce can be grown to feed three families.

On Wednesday evenings, the community square centered around the farm stand is abuzz as local vendors sell goods at the farmers market and food trucks line the streets. The farm stand is always open on an honor system, meaning that anyone can purchase farm-fresh ingredients whenever they need them. Agritopia also offers a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, in which shareholders pay a seasonal fee to support the farm and get weekly boxes of produce in return.

Queen Creek Olive Mill

AgritopiaQueen Creek Olive Mill, the dream of master blender Perry Rea and his wife Brenda, is the only family-run olive mill in Arizona. Rea encourages the importance of sustainable farming; the grove of more than 7,000 olive trees is pesticide-free, as olive flies can’t survive in the valley’s extreme temperatures. The groves are also irrigated with micro-sprinklers filled with water supplied by the Central Arizona Project, and 30 percent of the facility is powered by solar electricity. On a recent visit to the farm, Rea explained the importance of drip irrigation. “It allows us to control exactly how much water we use,” says Rea, which is important in a desert climate.

Guests of the mill can take Olive Oil 101, a 30-minute tour and class that teaches the different qualities and standards of olive oil, highlighting the importance of extra virgin olive oil — oil which has been extracted using solely mechanical processes, without the use of heat or solvents. The Reas, both certified olive oil sommeliers, encourage consumers to know their farmers and the milling process in order to ensure they are using the best quality oil.

The mill thrives on community involvement with live music every weekend, special events on holidays, art shows and seasonal festivals — the second annual garlic festival, which took place this September.

Schnepf Farms

Just down the road from the mill, you’ll find Schnepf Farms, a family-owned farm and the largest grower of organic peaches in Arizona. The Schnepf family had a huge hand in the incorporation of Queen Creek in 1989, and owner Mark Schnepf served as the first mayor of the town for 11 years, so Schnepf Farms is deeply embedded in the community around it. The Schnepf family began diversifying in the 1990s in order to attract more visitors and keep them there longer. The farm boasts amusement park rides, a petting zoo, and a store and bakery that uses fresh ingredients straight from the farm.

Aritopia DinnerIn 2005, the farm began purchasing renewable energy through SRP’s EarthWise Energy Program, making it the first farm in the state to do so.

“Everything we provide for [visitors] on the farm is organically grown, operated by renewable energy and baked by power that is the cleanest for our environment,” said Schnepf in a statement about the conversion to renewable energy. “We want to continue our farming tradition and pass on our legacy to our children, and caring about the environment is one step closer to preserving that legacy.”

Schnepf Farms invites visitors for seasonal you-pick produce, a seasonal flea market and a popular “Dinner Down the Orchard” event, where visitors can dine in the middle of the orchard while eating fresh food produced by the farm. The Peach Blossom Celebration, Peach Festival, and Pumpkin & Chili Party remain some of the biggest draws to the farm, with hayrides, train rides and, of course, farm-fresh food.