The Building Of An Agrihood In Arizona

The Building Of An Agrihood In Arizona
By Mary Luz Mejia

FARM STANDThe farm to table movement has evolved to a whole new dimension.  Now the movement can call an “agrihood” as part of the equation. The New York Times dubbed the community of Agritopia, located east of Phoenix in the town of Gilbert, Arizona, one of the country’s best “agrihoods”; a residential development where the central focus is a working farm, instead of a golf course or a pool. Agriptopia the farm, has also lead to the tight knit, farm to table relationships flourishing in the region thanks to chefs who support local food producers, and to farmers who understand why this bond is invaluable.

The fifteen acre, USDA Certified Organic urban farm grows over 100 types of fruit and vegetables year round. They sell to residents through their CSA program, a self-serve farm stand, markets and of course, through local restaurants.  The farm also boasts grazing sheep, chickens and honeybees that pollinate, fertilize and cultivate the crops and land.

Head farmer Erich Schultz says that 50% of what they grow at Agritopia is sold to local restaurants. Here’s why it’s important to him: “I am passionate about creating local hubs which can minimizes the amount food that is imported.  I also believe that eating seasonal/local gives you fresher, tastier and more nutrient dense food.”

Joes Farm Grill ExteriorIn the 1960s, the Johnston family bought the farm where Jim and his wife Virgina raised their three boys. Today, the former Johnston family farm house is home to Joe’s Farm Grill, the first recipient of Agritopia’s farm-fresh fare. This is fast-food done the slow food way- from green bean “fries,” seared Ahi-tuna salads, to Arizona beef burgers with a side of sweet potato fries.

“We currently sell to about 25 different restaurants,” says Schultz. These include FnB in Scottsdale, the award winning Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Binkley’s, Liberty Market in Gilbert, Uprooted Kitchen, Arizona Wilderness Brewing and Crepe Bar in the university town of Tempe.

Jeff Kraus is the owner and chief crepe maker behind Crepe Bar, where every crepe is scratch made using an assortment of products and produce from other local producers and farmers.

Proteins come from The Meat Shop, crepe batters are made with local Hayden Flour Mills and produce from Agritopia and the Gilbert Farmers Market.

On the menu, you’ll find 13MI Vegetable curry (the mileage between the restaurant and the farm) showcasing Agritopia’s sweet potato, eggplant, carrots, radish, and lemons. Kraus says, “I just introduced another menu that I’m hoping will catch on. It’s called  ’13’. It’s all snacks and 100% from the farm or from what we made at the restaurant.” Bites include flash fried shishito peppers with a chili lime crema, radishes with cultured butter, hard boiled duck eggs served with an assortment of salts and peppers, and sweet potato chips with miso and honey.

The result is not only delicious, it’s community building. And that’s precisely what attracted Kraus to Agritopia in the first place: “They are culture and community like minded. They’re thoughtful, seasonal, and sustainability focused. They’ve continued to build upon their vision year after year and have continued to make our Phoenix Valley food culture stronger.”

SurcosSchultz says he’s seeing an increasing number of Arizona-based restaurants identifying the value of sourcing from local farms and purveyors instead of spending their dollars solely with giant distribution companies. He realizes that there are both benefits and challenges in deciding to doing this. “The benefits include better quality products, an opportunity to work with the farmer to request they grow specific items and to keep money in the local economy,” he says adding, “Challenges include a less automated ordering system, a more limited availability and more variations with the produce (i.e. we don’t grow a 1000 acres of sweet potatoes like the mega farms the large distributors are sourcing from, and therefore can’t offer as much of a sorted/consistent sized potato. Some are big, some are small).”

For eateries like Krau’s Crepe Bar, that’s a plus, not a negative. Being able to support farmers in the region and in return get ingredients that Kraus says “makes providing and receiving nourishment that much more meaningful” is key to what he, and other like-minded restaurateurs and chefs are working towards.