The Search For Local Organic Food In The Arizona Desert

AZ farmland photo

Photo by cogdogblog via Flickr Creative Commons
Locally raised organic food -- it's what anyone who wants to eat the healthiest foods with the smallest environmental footprint hunts for, right? Whether from their own garden or the local markets, anyone should have access to produce, dairy and meats that are from their own county. But what do we do when we live in a place that's not exactly conducive to raising crops, like, say, Phoenix, Arizona. After finding myself in this very city for a long enough visit that the minuscule organic produce offerings at the big chain grocery store down the street weren't going to cut it, I decided to go on a mission to find out what one is supposed to eat if they find themselves in the relatively unfortunate situation of living in the middle of a desert. After all, I'd think that if there's any place where the local food movement would prove fallible, it should be here. After just a day of research, it turns out that the movement is alive and kicking everywhere. I was born and raised in a farming town in coastal California, and now live in San Francisco. So I'm fairly used to having access to local organic food year round, with no need to travel farther than a walk down the street to get it. If whatever one feels like eating for dinner isn't in one's own yard or a neighbor's, then there is a market, a CSA, or a roadside stand that will have it, and grown from not all that far away. The only thing standing between you and wide variety of local organic food (within reason) is a shift in seasons.

So at the end of July when I came to Phoenix for an extended stay, I received quite the culture shock. I should have been prepared, knowing that I was in the middle of the desert, after all. But still, standing in the produce section of the nearby grocery store with its pitiful two shelves of organic options, I wondered what in the world anyone eats if they care about local organic food -- if they care about consuming fresh food at all, for that matter. Could I expect to eat anything that came from within 100 miles, let alone organic? After two weeks of frustrated foraging in the grocery store, I decided it was high time to try and find it if it was out there.

And shock of all shocks, it is. Sort of.

Thank You Barbara Kingsolver

AZ food organic photo

The minuscule offerings of organics at Fry's in Phoenix, Arizona; Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

I brought Animal, Vegetable, Miracle with me on the trip and started in on the bestselling book during week two of my stay. This was right about the time where the options for fresh organic produce (not raised locally) became mundane -- the store down the street (Fry's) with the roughly 6-foot by 3-foot section for organic produce contained: avocados, carrots, celery, romaine lettuce, strawberries, broccoli, leeks, green bell peppers, one type of apple, radishes, green grapes, eggplant, new potatoes, mangoes, peaches, kiwi and cucumber.

And that's it. The Safeway store, which is a slightly longer drive (and yes, you drive in Phoenix during me. I tried walking and it's a suicide mission) has even fewer options. If I stick to just these shelves, I'd be an inspiration for everyone if I weren't bored to tears with my meal plan within a week. And I am not an inspiration for everyone. After munching on sliced bell pepper and carrots for a week, I was not just bored but angry too.

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver moved from Tucson, Arizona to the family's farm in rural Virginia in no small part because the environmental footprint of food in Arizona is something an eco-minded individual cannot easily tolerate.

"We wanted to live in a place that could feed us: where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubbles right up out of the ground. This might seem an abstract reason for leaving beloved friends and one of the most idyllic destination cities in the United States. But it was real to us... By all accounts [Tucson] is a bountiful source of everything on the human-needed checklist, save for just one thing -- the stuff we put in our mouths every few hours to keep us alive. Like many other modern US cities, it might as well be a space station where human sustenance is concerned. Virtually every unit of food consumed there moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away."

And how.

For me, there was no running home to California each week to stock up on essentials. But did I have to eat pesticide-ridden food trucked in from other states just to survive? With Kingsolver's book as a source of inspiration and challenge, I decided I didn't have to eat unsustainable food just because I was in Arizona. I just had to look harder.

It's Not In The Stores. Period.

AZ food organic photo
Sprouts, a grocery store with a greener mindset in Phoenix, Arizona; Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch Poverty and Produce Turns out, part of my disappointment in the produce section stemmed from the neighborhood where I was staying. Chain grocery stores like Fry's and Safeway in lower-end middle class neighborhoods don't have the selection the more well-off neighborhoods have. I was informed by long-time Phoenix residents that if I were to drive about 20-30 minutes toward the fancier neighborhoods, I'd find more of what I was looking for -- not much, but a bit more. Phoenix offers a glaring example of how poverty stands in the way of healthy food.

Those nicer neighborhoods also have the alternative stores, in this case Trader Joe's and Sprouts, which usually have wider options for organic and more sustainable foods.

The Alternative Options to Big Chain Store Selections, Or Lack Thereof
I am very familiar with Trader Joe's stores and what they offer. Yes, there are organic options, but they're usually packaged to high heaven too. Sprouts, however, I hadn't heard of before. I looked at their website which conveniently shows what they stock that is in season and where that food is sourced. Turns out, if I wanted both organic and local (as in grown somewhere within the state of Arizona, even if not locally) there was one type of food they had in abundance during August: melons. Sprouts, depending on which store I visited, could offer me about eight varieties of melons and one variety of grapefruit that is grown locally. Everything else is trucked in from out of state or out of country. And not all of it is organic, either.

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The (even more) minuscule organic offerings at Sprouts in Phoenix, AZ; Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

I went to visit one of the stores anyway. It is basically a version of Trader Joe's or any other store that pulls the best of "regular" grocery stores and organic alternative stores together so that both Joe Plumber shoppers and the more crunchy granola of us can find mostly what we want. There are bulk bins of flour, nuts and candies, but not many that are organic. And alongside the Tofutti "ice cream" bars are pints of Starbuck's Java Chip ice cream. Even here, the minimal organic produce options were stuffed in a quiet corner while the rest of the produce overflowed from stands -- and it had even fewer options than the Fry's store where I'd been shopping. Yup, not much to forage here for a foodie with an eye for local organic.

Before I write off stores altogether, I have one more market to visit for which I have high hopes - the Phoenix Public Market. It is a 501c3 that supports small farmers, local producers of goods and artists by providing a space for them to sell their wares. It even hosts events like a permaculture class and a night of good eating with the Phoenix Street Food Movement. Its central focus is on healthy foods and boosting the local economy, and I'm hoping it contains everything I'm my hungry stomach is hunting for. However, it is also just one outlet in a city of millions of residents -- hardly a catch-all for a sustainable food movement.

Farmers' Markets An Option For The Few
I had to try out a farmers' market in Phoenix to see if it can offer what the chain stores can't. According to Local Harvest and Community Food Connections, I could count on one hand the number of nearby farmers markets. I chose one of the closest... it was still a 40 minute drive round-trip. I wandered up one side and down the other of the row of about two dozen stalls, which included produce, meats from beef to wild Alaskan salmon, foods like hummus and breads, honey and goods from soap to puppets. I chose my purchases carefully:

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Goods from one of the farmers' markets in Phoenix, AZ; Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

This loot -- one heirloom tomato, two Saturn peaches, and one pink lady apple ($6.70 total), five honey sticks ($1.25), one baguette ($2.00) and one 2-pound free-range chicken ($12) -- emptied my wallet in no time flat. I wish I could say I was shocked at the prices, but considering what I'd seen of local organic fare so far, I just wasn't surprised. The bread and produce was lunch. The chicken, however, was almost an act of charity.

When I saw the rancher's stand with a sign saying $12 a bird, I wanted to both ask her about her business and find out what sized chicken fetches such a price. Even at Sprouts a whole "all natural" chicken is only $1.39 a pound and a whole chicken already roasted to perfection for you is advertised at 2 for $10.

Sharon keeps her chickens free range, and even processes them herself (the one I ended up purchasing was killed and processed just the day before), but she has to supplement their free-range diet with feed. Her feed is not organic, and the reason for that is simply price. When gas prices went up, so did her expenses for feed, jumping from $9 a bag to $16 a bag. If she tried to feed her chickens organic feed, she'd be spending along the lines of $35 a bag and the chickens (already quite expensive) would skyrocket. She'd be out of business.

Two things keeping Sharon afloat are (unfortunately) going non-organic for her feed, and joining up with a farmers' market instead of a CSA. She explained that by having a stall at a farmers' market she makes a far larger profit than if she were to sell her wares through a CSA program, simply because she can sell directly to customers. While the farmers' market requires the cost of a stall and 10% of the day's profits, the CSA program requires her selling wholesale rather than retail. She can sell a dozen eggs to a customer for about $7, whereas a CSA would pay her $3 for that same dozen. She says no contest, she prefers the farmers' market.

I bought the bird not because I really wanted it (I only eat meat a handful of times a year, and only if it meets extremely high environmental standards) but because I felt compelled to support this farmer who was doing something extraordinarily difficult these days -- being a small scale rancher in a factory farm world. She gave me some tips on how to cook it, and the meat-eaters in the family will make short work of the little creature.

While Sharon prefers the farmers' markets, I'm guessing that in Phoenix, most customers' wallets prefer CSAs. What family of four can afford a $12 2-lb bird several nights a week? Let alone $6.70 for an apple, two tiny peaches and a tomato? The Arizona farmers' market, while enticing and of high quality, is mainly for the privileged few.

One major pro to the farmers market association, though, is that Arizona growers accept food stamps at the stand through a special program, ensuring that more low-income people have access to quality food. Huge props to them for such a policy.

CSAs or Starve

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CSA box filled with produce for the week; photo via ScottDMoose via Flickr Creative Commons

The options seem clear. If you want to eat in Arizona, you can either put aside the dream of local organic, or you can subscribe to a CSA and be content with whatever they can bring you throughout the year. Even that has some limited options. There are only a handful of CSA programs for the Phoenix area, and not all of them provide locally raised food.

There is only one that provides a diversity of meats, Topline Foods. It's not technically a CSA, but if a conscientious eater wants meat, it's practically the only option. A few of their meats are organically raised, but only the buffalo meat is raised in Arizona. The rest might be organic, but not always, and definitely isn't from within the state (though the website doesn't tell us this -- I needed to call to ask). And because of their small size, they require a minimum order of a month's worth of meat. Even if a person only eats meat once or twice a month, buffalo can become boring after awhile. They make a valiant effort at providing healthier and more humanely raised meats to Arizonans, and are completely honest about their meat sourcing when I asked, but there's only so much one small business can do and still stay afloat.

For produce, the two best options (meaning they looked reliable enough to bring you something every week without fail, and trustworthy enough to actually be organic as claimed) appear to be Crooked Sky Farms and Farmyard.

Crooked Sky Farms (which also had a stall at the farmers' market I visited) raises fresh produce for local farmers markets and CSAs on a few plots of land within Phoenix and a few in other areas of Arizona. They're certified "Naturally Grown." The owner, Farmer Frank, wasn't available to talk with me while I was researching for this article -- it's a rare farmer that is available to talk in between seasons when summer harvests and Fall planting are in high gear. But I have to say that their website alone (as in, the fact that they had one, that it contained relevant information and even a Twitter stream) would have been enough for me to sign up for a box to try it out if I were a Phoenix resident. In this day and age, a quality website gives you quite a bit of clout among consumers.

But the second option really stood out to me as something special in the desert southwest. Farmyard is more than just a CSA program. They're empowering residents to take control of their food consumption, converting useless lawns into gardens that provide breakfast, lunch and dinner, all without raising the water bill or creating excessive yardwork.

Farmyard To The Rescue
While Farmyard offers a CSA box complete with eggs from their free-range chickens, they also offer a garden installation and maintenance program for people who want to raise their own foods. They will come in and set up however large a garden as a client wants -- even converting the entire landscape over to food production -- including raised beds, compost, and drip irrigation systems. They'll even come in once a month to help clients maintain the garden, assisting with everything from weeding to crop rotation. Started by sisters Rebecca and Sarah Kidwell, Farmyard makes eaters in the desert southwest self-reliant.

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Squash gourd at the Tucson Botanical Garden during a demonstration garden for low-water, organic methods; photo via Kretyen via Flickr Creative Commons

I spoke with Rebecca and co-owner Troy about the program. They noted that people who live in Phoenix are often daunted by the idea of raising their own food -- not only is it an overwhelming idea for many city residents across climate ranges, but especially so in the desert where it's hard enough to keep a geranium happy, let alone food crops. But in reality, Arizona's weather allows for crops to be grown 12 months out of the year, though there's a slow-down in the summer. The growing seasons may be different (expect to harvest your tomatoes in March, not August) than most other climes, but it's still possible.

Most of their clients are people who want to rekindle a connection with their food, but they don't want it to become their entire day's work. And they don't want to use more water than necessary in this arid location. An installation, they note, takes no more water -- and sometimes even less -- than it takes to water a lawn. So there is no noticeable change in the water bill. And they can grow practically anything from basics like tomatoes and melons to herbs and even fruit trees like apricots and plums.

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Photo via Farmyard

Troy noted that the garden installation usually pays for itself within a year through the food production. And that's just money. The more important calculation is what it provides in increased nutrition. From looking at what was offered in the stores around here, a Phoenix family is sure to be far healthier if they're eating from their own organic gardens than consuming the handful of varieties of trucked-in, out-of-season, non-organic produce picked up in grocery stores.

Compared to even the farmers' markets in Phoenix (which are few, and often contain mainly larger farms that also truck their wares hundreds of miles to sell once a week to consumers), growing your own food in the desert or subscribing to one of the few CSAs is actually the best way to eat.

Yay for Backyard Gardens. Boo for Water Shortages

arizona irrigation photo
Photo by kevindooley via Flickr Creative Commons Desert Cities and Water Shortages It's great that people can grow their own gardens chockablock full of organic foods. A family friend a few blocks away grows an amazing smorgasbord of veggies that she can turn into the most delectable marinara you'll ever be lucky enough to taste. And a couple dozen miles away in Mesa, Arizona, a family has converted their backyard pool into an aquaponic oasis, raising fish, chickens and veggies.

But that doesn't make the middle of the desert a sustainable place to live. As Kingsolver notes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Arizona's water comes either from a fossil aquifer (meaning an ancient store of groundwater that is being pumped at a rate far, far faster than it can be naturally replenished) or from water channeled -- in open canals, no less -- from the Colorado river, a river that doesn't even make it to the sea anymore because of extensive draw by California and Arizona.

"Arizona is still an agricultural state. Even after the population boom of the mid-nineties, 85 percent of the state's water still went to thirsty crops like cotton, alfalfa, citrus and pecan trees. Mild winters offer the opportunity to create an artificial endless summer, as long as we can conjure up water and sustain a chemically induced illusion of topsoil."

Neither conjuring up water nor a chemical illusion of topsoil are sustainable no matter how we look at it or how hard farmers wish it to be true. The state's residents are living on borrowed time because they're sucking down borrowed resources. The desert is no place for millions of eaters.

Two Things Are For Certain

1) If I were going to live in Phoenix, I'd no doubt have Farmyard come set me up with a great garden, get myself a couple laying hens for eggs, and supplement the rest of my diet with cheeses, honeys and other items from local produces.

2) I'll never live in Phoenix. A person just can't eat in Phoenix they we can in San Francisco. In California, I have easy access to high quality food that doesn't cost an arm, a leg and a planet.

But for those bound and determined to live in Phoenix, if you put in a little (surprisingly little) effort and ditch your backyard swimming pool for a few raised garden beds, it's possible to drastically minimize your food footprint. Happily, even in Phoenix, the sustainable food movement is alive and well.

Follow Jaymi on Twitter for more stories like this
More on Sustainable Food
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The Search For Local Organic Food In The Arizona Desert
Photo by cogdogblog via Flickr Creative CommonsLocally raised organic food -- it's what anyone who wants to eat the healthiest foods with the smallest environmental footprint hunts for, right? Whether from their own garden or the local markets, anyone

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