In 1870, the U.S. Census recorded that farmers made up 47.7% of the workforce. Today, The American Farm Bureau Federation reports that farm and ranch families comprise less than 2% of the U.S. population. While statistics may answer affirmatively to the initial question posed here, for the Phoenix East Valley, the rich history, tradition and practices tied to family farms are still very much alive — and thriving. In fact, many East Valley farms — established even before their towns and cities were incorporated — have evolved into national agritainment and agritourism hot spots.

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Deep farming roots

Before Morrison Ranch was the picturesque and expansive development that many Gilbert residents know and love today — and even before Gilbert was incorporated in 1920 — the area was largely farmland. Howard and Leatha Morrison were among the first to homestead, arriving from Oklahoma in the early 1920s. 

“My grandparents came to visit [Gilbert] Thanksgiving 1933,” recalls Scott Morrison, partner of Morrison Ranch. “My grandmother’s brother Hugh took my grandfather aside and said, ‘You don’t need to go to New Mexico, we’ll get you set up right here.’”

From there, Morrison Ranch bloomed into one of the “East Valley’s biggest farming operations, including several square miles of cropland and one of the world’s largest dairy farms, as well as one of Arizona’s largest ranching businesses (grazing cattle on over 400 square miles of state and leased land stretching from Flagstaff to the Verde River),” according to the Morrison Ranch website.

Similar to Morrison Ranch, Sossaman Farms in neighboring Queen Creek was homesteaded in 1919 by Jasper and Nancy Sossaman. 

“The farm at that time was producing vegetables and supplied the mines in Miami and Globe,” explains Steve Sossaman. “Through the years we have grown just about everything from specialty crops like sugar beets and potatoes to conventional crops like cotton, corn and durum wheat.”

Two decades later, in 1941, Schnepf Farms established its operations, growing a variety of produce including potatoes, corn and peaches. 

Another 20 years after the advent of Schnepf Farms — in 1960 — Jim Johnston and his wife Virginia purchased a farm in Gilbert which is now known as Agritopia, a 166-acre mixed-use planned community in Gilbert, Arizona designed to “encourage agrarianism.” 

East Valley agritourism

The history of Phoenix East Valley family-farm-based institutions, such as those previously mentioned, is important in understanding why agriculture has — and continues — to be an integral part of the region’s identity. 

But to remain relevant and competitive, long-time East Valley farming operations have evolved over the years. Despite embracing the change necessary to remain prosperous, however, they haven’t lost sight of their agricultural roots. 

“As time passed and Gilbert began to get swallowed by Metro Phoenix, as we always knew it would,” Morrison explains, “around 1991/1992, I started to say, ‘I think it’s time for us to think about what’s next.’ And before too long, several family members were helping me do that.”

After much contemplation, Morrison and his partners came up with the concept of a master-planned community; what’s known today as Morrison Ranch.

“We didn’t want there to be a Morrison Ranch that wasn’t tied to Gilbert’s roots and we didn’t want Gilbert to simply become Greater Phoenix,” Morrison says. “And so we undertook to plan a master plan community that would be tied to Gilbert’s roots.”

In keeping with the agricultural integrity of Gilbert’s farming foundation, the design of Morrison Ranch echoes many characteristics of its pre-township beginnings. For example, because agriculture in Arizona is in clear, straight lines, the tree-lined streets of Morrison Ranch were deliberately planted in the same configuration. 

“We had groves of pecans and groves of oranges and even some groves of dates,” Morrison says. “And so we made the street landscape agriculture in nature, lines of trees that are straight and lined up, and very little else.”

The housing community’s sidewalks are intentionally detached from the curb, making them several feet from the street. 

“It’s a more inviting place for families to be — for a couple to walk down the sidewalk with their kid on the tricycle and not think that the kid is one second and six feet from being in front of a car,” Morrison says. 

Morrison Ranch also incorporates multiple parks, with almost every street cul-de-sac ending with some type of park space. 

“And then another thing we did along the [east-west] arterial streets is put all our houses facing the street with a frontage road because we drove to every farmhouse and every ranch neighborhood in Gilbert and none of them turned their back to the main street,” Morrison says. 

Sossaman Farms, which continues its farming operations, has kept its ties to agricultural beginnings by “showcasing the ancient grain connection,” Sossaman says. 

“We have conducted many tours over the years and also consult with others wanting to start growing these grains,” he says. “On our Grain R&D website, we have lots of information and videos — even an Amazon Special. We look forward to building more ways to educate the public through the development of our Heritage Corner. This will include a new malthouse, restaurants and an event center.”

Newer sprouts

Although newer on the timeline — but already cultivating its own fruitful history — Queen Creek Olive Mill is another example of East Valley agriculture evolution. On vacation during the winter of 1996, Perry Rea and his wife Brenda were inspired by the olive trees they saw in Old Town Scottsdale. Fast forward to 2005, the couple established Queen Creek Olive Mill with the vision of creating a local, sustainable, and family-owned olive farm and mill.

“Queen Creek has a rich history of farming with fertile soil and a climate conducive to agriculture,” says Perry Rea, owner of the Queen Creek Olive Mill. “This historical context provided a strong foundation for the Queen Creek Olive Mill, aligning with our vision of creating a local, sustainable and family-owned business. The agricultural heritage of Queen Creek has contributed to community support and resources beneficial for the Olive Mill’s success.”

Recently, Agritopia has undergone a metamorphosis from an agrarianism-focused, master-plan community to an agritainment focal point, incorporating Epicenter at Agritopia. At Epicenter, visitors can enjoy an abundance of retail, dining and wellness opportunities, while still experiencing the agricultural ambiance and activities of Agritopia (such as U-Pick experiences). 

As agriculture continues to transform throughout the East Valley, one thing is clear: it is still very much alive and well. And as for family farming? It may be a dwindling art in some parts of the country — but not there. 

“We now have the sixth generation (my grandkids) living on the original farm,” Sossaman says. “We still farm about 350 acres of the original 1,000 acres. Being in Queen Creek has been a blessing.”