In 2016, The Field Is Open For New Arizona Farmers

Published: Thursday, May 19, 2016 - 2:59pm
Updated: Thursday, May 19, 2016 - 4:11pm
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
The Phoenix Urban Research Farm sits along Central Avenue in Phoenix.

The average farm size in Arizona is decreasing. That’s because more and more small farms are cropping up in the state.

The same trend is true for Maricopa County, to the point where more than half the farms in the county were less than 10 acres in 2012. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture census.

The definition of a farm is changing, and with it, so are the people who call themselves farmers.

Picture a farm — Old McDonald’s farm may be the image that comes to mind — with a corn field here and a red barn there. But today’s farms come in all shapes and sizes.

“The whole plot itself is only a half acre, so the section that I have is a … like an 80 north-south by about a 50 east-west,” said Steve Enteman, standing at the Phoenix Urban Research Farm in central Phoenix.

It’s an incubator for beginning farmers, like Enteman, run by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. 

“I’ve got tomatoes that are starting to produce, and getting the rest of my carrots out,” Enteman said.

Enteman is actually a police officer, but for years he’s been farming in his free time.

“It’s a different type of farming,” said Julie Murphree with the Arizona Farm Bureau, an organization made up of stakeholders in the state’s farming industry.

“I see a trend with more very small, urban, even backyard-sized farms,” Murphree said.      

Murphree said when it comes to dollars, this subset of farms is just a drop in the bucket. Their revenues don’t compare with larger farms.

“But it has some of the greatest potential for growth,” she said.

At a farmer’s market this week, a bus dropped off about 15 people participating in a workshop for new farmers, also through the University of Arizona. There they learned about the one green they can’t grow — money. 

A market is one of the options they’ll have for selling the fruits and veggies of their labor. Eric Geelen and his wife Carla were in the workshop.

“We’re from Illinois,” Geelen said. “We moved here in December.”

The Geelens both retired from corporate jobs, and now they’re ready to call themselves farmers. Before this workshop, Eric said they had a different idea of what that meant.

“In my mind we go and walk into a Fry’s or a Safeway and say, ‘Here’s our stuff, why don’t you sell it?’ And they’ve really helped us think that through a little bit,” he said.

The old farmers still have the wholesale market locked in. These new farmers are not going to be taking over grocery stores or restaurant chains. So, what do they have to offer? Steve Enteman said the answer is variety, something that’s been largely weeded out of wholesale.

“What I can do is I can find that dual-colored summer squash that you’re not going to find in the store because it doesn’t ship well, or it just doesn’t have the same marketability,” Enteman said.

When Enteman retires from his law enforcement job next month, he said he’ll be a full-time farmer, tilling soil on that tiny plot, tucked between skyscrapers as the train goes by — the picture of farming in 2016.

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