The Incredible Shrinking Farm

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Even if you saw the farm along Baseline Road between 12th and 15th Avenues, you might not recognize the structures as greenhouses nor the property as a farm.

You might think it was abandoned.

In the meantime you might have missed a couple of other farms as you drove by, on either side of the road.

The gravelly unmarked entrance to Abby Lee Farms leads to the back of the property where an older man in a wrinkled red golf shirt stands. His hands are covered with dirt as he waves.

Owner Neal Brooks talked about his operations in south Phoenix, and across the state. Brooks owns plots outside of Phoenix, 155 acres and 763 acres, miles away in Wilcox and Safford, near the New Mexico border.

The land on Baseline Road is four and a half acres.

There is a shrinking farm trend in Arizona’s agricultural scene, which in the modern sense goes back 150 years or so, and back another 800 years for the Hohokam people that dug the first canals in the valley.

If many Phoenix area residents miss the farms they drive by, even more are blind to the reasons for the miniaturization.

Mark Freeman farms 25 acres in the middle of Mesa. His family has farmed for generations, and helped to found Mesa in the process.

He suggests money and land monopolies account for the current landscape.

“Land is not available, let’s just put it that way. It is hard to get into the farming operation unless you know how to do it and someone allows you to rent and lease land.”

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According to the US Department of Agriculture, since 1982:

Farmland and the subset of harvested cropland acres decreased in Arizona – partly due to increased urbanization around the state. Cropland decreased from 1.2 million acres to 890 thousand acres, while developed land increased from 990 thousand to 2.1 million acres.

At the same time, the number of farms increased threefold and the average size in acres decreased fourfold.

In Phoenix, some farmers work plots measured in square feet rather than acres. Farms visited range in size from one quarter of an acre to 22 acres. Close to 1,500 farms in Maricopa County measure less than 10 acres, according to the USDA.

Currently, Phoenix farmer Stella McPhee runs Horny Toad Farm on one acre.

“Us farmers, what a lot of us do is we lease property so if it ends up selling or gets developed then we end up having to move,” she said.

That is exactly what happened to Horny Toad Farm. Stella used to work a leased field in south central Phoenix.

After too many moves, McPhee wants to stay put.

“I consolidated down to just one acre that I own, and from this point forward I just want to plant properties that I own,” McPhee stated.

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Size is not the only mark of changes in Arizona agriculture, and the difference between a tiny farm and a corporate farm of thousands of acres is not only numbers. It is more variety, not monoculture. It is vulnerability – to the weather, to local economics, to shoppers trained to expect perfect strawberries and watermelons, uniform in size, weight and color.

Small means financial challenges, and lots of different ways to bring in money. It means tractors and loans and scramble for land that some farmers do not want their children to have to deal with.

Among the farmers interviewed in the Phoenix valley, none planned any family succession of their farmland or farm operations. Instead, either they do not wish the farming life for their children, or the children themselves show no interest in farming as a livelihood.

“I always thought I was saving this for my kids, but now I think I’m selling it or changing it,” Brooks said about his farmland.

Mark Freeman says his grown children do no plan to take up where he leaves off.

Some do currently work as a family farm. Filiberto Cisneros farms in Goodyear and grows onions, potatoes, tomatoes, celery, carrots, cucumber, and his favorite, the lettuce.

“Quarter of an acre. But this is greenhouses. Me and my wife and my daughter. Yes. It’s family business,” Cisneros said smiling.

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What every single farmer interviewed wants to pass on: their love of soil, and seeds and rain and plants that grow and feed us. Miracle carrots and tomatoes growing in the desert, in between asphalt parking lots and along asphalt roads and highways.

“I’ve been doing it my whole life,” Stella McPhee said. “It was a dream of mine.”

And like telling someone close about a dream, McPhee passionately shares details of starting small with plants in an apartment and a backyard garden.

“I was learning the conditions so that when I did buy a property I knew exactly what to do,” she said.

She grows trees, too, and she plans to buy another property next year. She believes in farming.

So does Neal Brooks, Mark Freeman, Filiberto Cisneros and Stella McPhee. Every one of them spoke animatedly, forcefully even, and at length, about their crops, the plans for expansion or contraction, Arizona weather, Arizona soil, Arizona farms and farmers, and about how long they have been at this.

Forty years for Brooks. All her life, says McPhee. Since he was a kid, says Freeman.

Freeman believes that any friction between urban farm operations and the densely packed metro dwellers inconvenienced by those operations, can be reduced by both sides acknowledging that the one wants to grow and deliver good food to the other who wants to eat good food.

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Plots stand next to a rental car lot, but produce better tasting vegetables than any you might find in the grocery store, so says Frank Martin at Crooked Sky Farms, surrounded on two sides by arterial south Phoenix streets, with the downtown skyline clearly visible, proud and straight glass and concrete.

Martin too thinks people need to learn where their food comes from.

“It’s a really really bad problem. People don’t really realize that, but when they go into a grocery store, [the grocer] is very proud if those carrots come from Arizona. So if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist,” he said.

Neal Brooks believes he is a real farmer who knows a thing or two.

“The world of ag is about longs and shorts, it’s never right, you’re dealing with God and Nature,” Brooks said.

Another thing he knows: consumers, educated by decades of commercial farm produce in supermarkets, have lost understanding of how good tasting, freshly picked fruits and vegetables are grown.

“You actually need people who respect seasonality and say ‘I want a great peach and when I can’t have it I just won’t have a peach. I’ll wait until peach season.’ It’s a revolutionary thought,”

Anita Reale, Manager of the Ahwatukee Farmer’s Market, believes in miracles.

“When you’re in a big metropolis city like this you don’t expect someone to be able to grow produce right here when we’re in this cement laden world. So it is pretty miraculous to see that there are more and more community gardens,” she said, with eyes wide.

But miracles require a witness, and Reale and McPhee and Brooks and Freeman all exert lots of energy and time and money to help open the eyes of Phoenix valley residents to the onions, carrots, celery, alfalfa, cotton, and tomatoes growing right there behind that fence, and over there along that road, and up against that housing development.

Kale, brussel sprouts and carrots in January through March. Radishes starting in April. Mostly everything July through September and on through December.

They want to teach people about the tradeoffs in this era of urbanization and commercial farming. Seasonality versus predictability. Variety versus sameness. Taste versus transportability.

The farms get smaller, but now there are more of them than ever in Arizona, with lots of those right here in the Phoenix metropolitan area. which also means more farmers than ever are selling their homegrown and handpicked radishes and lettuce directly to the people who will eat them in their salads and casseroles and on their sandwiches.

In an unexpected, sometimes invisible twist, there are more and more farmers talking with and selling directly to more and more shoppers, even while there are fewer and fewer acres available to farm.

That’s a miracle.

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