Farm to table via Phoenix park pro­posal

Phoenix park pro­posal aims to con­nect res­i­dents with agri­cul­ture

The Arizona Republic - - Front Page - Do­minic Ar­mato

Food is uni­ver­sal. Ev­ery­body eats. But to Matthew Moore and Aric Mei, some­thing vi­tal to the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence is be­ing lost in America’s ur­ban cen­ters. “There de­serves to be a place in the mid­dle of a very large, dense, ur­ban sprawl where you can take fam­ily, take friends, take your­self to go see, taste and ex­pe­ri­ence agri­cul­ture,” Mei says. If Moore and Mei are suc­cess­ful, Phoenix may soon have such a place: The Farm at Los Olivos. Through their part­ner­ship, Green­belt Hos­pi­tal­ity, they’re propos­ing to con­vert a 4-acre plot on the west end of Los Olivos Park into a farm, education cen­ter and park con­ces­sion de­signed to en­hance the com­mu­nity and re­con­nect res­i­dents with Phoenix’s agrar­ian roots. The site is of the pri­vately funded, $5.5 mil­lion pro­ject is along 28th Street, just north of In­dian School Road.

“It’s a pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship, and we can make this hap­pen in Phoenix. Not in Napa, not in Hud­son Val­ley, but here in Phoenix,” Moore says.

Green­belt Hos­pi­tal­ity re­sponded to a re­quest for pro­pos­als by the Phoenix Parks and Re­cre­ation Depart­ment, winning their bid in Novem­ber. Now, if the duo can win the pub­lic’s sup­port — the next open house is Thurs­day — The Farm at Los Olivos will be­come a reality.

Moore and Mei’s story is a meet­ing of the minds be­tween part­ners who came from opposite ends of the same prob­lem and bumped into each other some­where in the mid­dle.

“The su­per­mar­ket is pre­sented as a bounty with no guilt,” Moore says. “If you go into the gro­cery store, you’re never the one to pick the last thing off the shelf, and that has given us this false sense of what our world is.”

An in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized con­cep­tual artist, Moore has been in­flu­enced by his ex­pe­ri­ence run­ning the farm founded by his great-grand­par­ents in the 1920s in Sur­prise, where de­vel­op­ment and sub­ur­ban growth — as in much of the coun­try — have con­trib­uted to the de­cline of the Amer­i­can fam­ily farm.

Moore cre­ated the Dig­i­tal Farm Col­lec­tive — a global data­base of agri­cul­tural data, in­ter­views with farm­ers and time­lapse films show­ing the full pro­duc­tion cy­cle of crops, from seed to harvest — in an ef­fort to bridge the gap be­tween farm­ers and con­sumers. But with Mei, he hopes to bring farm­ing it­self right into the heart of the city in a way that isn’t just sym­bolic.

“‘Farm to table’ has been go­ing on for a while,” Moore says, “but what does a de­moc­ra­tized ver­sion of that look like, and how do we get in­for­ma­tion out to peo­ple? What’s a small (ur­ban) farm­ing model that works, that has im­pact, that has an en­gine be­hind it that’s not solely phil­an­thropic?”

Mei was raised in a restau­rant and hos­pi­tal­ity fam­ily. But it was the small gar­den at his cen­tral Phoenix restau­rant, The Par­lor, that got him think­ing about what it took to give his chefs the raw ma­te­ri­als they used to create their dishes.

“I de­signed and planted that lit­tle gar­den, and it was like the gate­way drug for me,” Mei says. “It re­ally started to high­light for me the vast dis­con­nect that has tran­spired be­tween what it takes to grow the car­rot, and what it takes to cook the car­rot and eat the car­rot. “That agri­cul­tural knowl­edge base,” he says, “is be­ing lost in the core of the city.”

Mei and Moore liken their roles to two halves of the same book — from seed to a box of pro­duce, and from a box of pro­duce to a fin­ished dish. “Ev­ery­body in cen­tral Phoenix right now is read­ing the sec­ond half of the book over and over and over again,” Mei says.

Fig­ur­ing out how to present the en­tire story in an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment is the chal­lenge. But with The Farm at Los Olivos, the pair have de­vised a way to do so while en­rich­ing the com­mu­nity and gen­er­at­ing rev­enue for the city.

It’s an am­bi­tious plan com­prised of three core el­e­ments.

1. The farm

Al­most half of the 4 acres would con­sist of a farm and or­chard that would ed­u­cate the pub­lic and sup­ply the park’s on-site con­ces­sion.

“For me, this is the cul­mi­na­tion of gen­er­a­tions of work,” Moore says.

While a small por­tion of the farm would in­clude a more di­verse se­lec­tion of crops for ed­u­ca­tional pur­poses, Moore and Mei are de­sign­ing an ac­tual, smallscale work­ing farm. “The mis­sion is to look for all of the dif­fer­ent ways in which we can bring real, work­ing agri­cul­ture onto a site that is mar­ried to restau­rants, so the pro­duc­tion doesn’t have to travel. It’s con­sumed on- site,” Mei says.

The duo plan to bring the most mod­ern tech­nol­ogy to bear on the Los Olivos farm, which would be walk­a­ble and open to the pub­lic — an in­te­gral part of the park it­self. Their hope is that exposing peo­ple to a work­ing farm will help fos­ter in­ter­est in agri­cul­ture and in­spire the com­mu­nity to learn more about where their food comes from.

2. The arts and education cen­ter

The sec­ond com­po­nent of the plan would forge a con­nec­tion be­tween city dwellers and the farm­ing that lit­er­ally sus­tains.

“If you knew it took 160 days to grow a car­rot, how would that change the way you think about it?” Moore asks.

A brick-and-mor­tar arts and education cen­ter would host classes and events to teach Phoenix res­i­dents and school­child­ren about farm­ing, agri­cul­ture and cook­ing in a space fea­tur­ing works from lo­cal artists.

“The agri­cul­tural knowl­edge base is per­haps the most im­por­tant knowl­edge base that a civ­i­liza­tion pos­sesses and main­tains,” Mei says. “If you are a city dweller, you don’t think about it. It doesn’t ex­ist, re­ally. It just hap­pens mag­i­cally, in the ether. So hope­fully, this will be a way to en­gage peo­ple to con­tinue to think about this most im­por­tant knowl­edge base.”

“It’s al­most like the Desert Botan­i­cal Gar­den of agri­cul­ture,” Moore adds.

Classes would range from purely ed­u­ca­tional to hands-on prac­ti­cal, and would be driven not just by the farm it­self but by groups from all over the Val­ley.

“There are so many or­ga­ni­za­tions, non-prof­its, schools, peo­ple that are in­ter­ested in teach­ing kids,” Mei says. “Matt and I want to build a fa­cil­ity where all of these or­ga­ni­za­tions that have an idea and a mis­sion, but they don’t have a place, can come.”

In keeping with their goal of telling the whole story, start to fin­ish, they want the arts and education cen­ter to act as a bridge be­tween the farm and the con­ces­sion, be­tween soil and plate.

“The choices with our diet are the sin­gle big­gest in­ter­face we have with the en­vi­ron­ment and with our own health and well­ness,” Mei says. “So be­ing en­gaged and un­der­stand­ing a lit­tle bit more about food that doesn’t just come from a freezer, that brings value.”

No. 3: The con­ces­sion

The fi­nal com­po­nent of the plan is a park con­ces­sion that de­fies con­ven­tion.

“Who said that it has to be hot dogs and snow cones out of a build­ing that looks like a jail cell?” Mei asks. “Who wrote that rule?”

In addition to a mar­ket that would sell pro­duce grown at the farm, Mei speaks of folks out for a morn­ing walk stop­ping in for cof­fee and pas­try, vis­i­tors from the Devon­shire Se­nior Cen­ter next door com­ing by in the af­ter­noon for a salad made from the farm’s pro­duce, and a din­ner table where neigh­bors can come to share a meal and a con­ver­sa­tion.

“The thing that’s super ex­cit­ing for me is that this menu is go­ing to be re­verseengi­neered,” Mei says. “The soil and cli­mate will be in charge of our menu.”

Hop­ing for com­mu­nity sup­port

The plan is widely seen as a win-win. “We would like to see more en­gage­ment in (Los Olivos Park),” Phoenix parks Di­rec­tor In­ger Erick­son says. “The park is pop­u­lar, but also, parks change and go through trends and cy­cles, and this would pro­vide more ac­tiv­ity and more eyes on the park.”

The Farm at Los Olivos would oc­cupy 4 acres of the roughly 25-acre park, leav­ing most of the park, in­clud­ing the Devon­shire Se­nior Cen­ter, un­changed. No park­land would be sold, and as ten­ants, Green­belt Hos­pi­tal­ity would be solely re­spon­si­ble for pay­ing for the nec­es­sary im­prove­ments.

Erick­son says there is no cost to tax­pay­ers and, in fact, rev­enue from the pro­ject would be shared be­tween Green­belt Hos­pi­tal­ity and the parks depart­ment, help­ing fund up­grades for the rest of Los Olivos Park and potentially other city parks. “The Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botan­i­cal Gar­den are on city prop­erty as well,” Erick­son notes, “and while they’re run by non-prof­its, they have some­thing that con­nects to the fa­cil­ity to make it more en­joy­able and an en­hance­ment to that fa­cil­ity.”

The Farm at Los Olivos is ex­pected to go be­fore the parks board for a fi­nal vote this month or in Fe­bru­ary. With the plan and fi­nanc­ing solidly in place, the de­ci­sion hinges in part on a com­mu­nity out­reach plan that in­cludes 20,000 mail­ers, a so­cial-me­dia cam­paign and two open houses. “We’re go­ing to wait un­til we get the com­mu­nity feed­back be­fore we make our rec­om­men­da­tion, but I think this is a pos­i­tive op­por­tu­nity, and I re­ally hope that the com­mu­nity is sup­port­ive of it,” Erick­son says.

Feed­back mostly pos­i­tive

On Dec. 11, res­i­dents snacked on br­uschetta and roasted veg­eta­bles at the se­nior cen­ter while dis­cussing the pro­ject with Mei and Moore at the first of two open houses to an­swer ques­tions and so­licit feed­back. So far, the re­sponse has been over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive.

“I think this would be so great for the neigh­bor­hood,” says Jan Lyda, a re­tiree who lives nearby on 24th Street. “Chil­dren are miss­ing some­thing when they can’t go out­side and pick a tomato.”

Re­nee and Chrissy Saint-Massey, who moved to the neigh­bor­hood in re­cent years and live on the edge of the park, are ex­pect­ing their first child. They’re look­ing forward to see­ing what the pro­ject could bring to their fam­ily and their com­mu­nity. “We’re re­ally ex­cited about it,” Re­nee says. “We’re pretty big food­ies, and we’re so ex­cited about the restau­rant. We’re friends with all of our im­me­di­ate neigh­bors, and there’s a good com­mu­nity here, but I think it’d be neat to be able to walk across the park and meet peo­ple or hang out with neigh­bors.”

How­ever, there’s more com­mu­nity out­reach to be done. Some res­i­dents have voiced ob­jec­tions, think­ing that park­land is be­ing sold or that the farm will re­place the se­nior cen­ter, nei­ther of which is the case. The most common con­cerns cen­ter around traf­fic. Mei is quick to point out that in­creased traf­fic is a func­tion of two vari­ables — den­sity and use — and the farm will add to only one of those.

“We’re not build­ing apart­ments. We’re not build­ing more den­sity,” Mei ex­plains. “We’re cre­at­ing some­thing that the neigh­bors are go­ing to use, and it’s walk­a­ble. And we would ar­gue that the use of a park is, by def­i­ni­tion, build­ing a healthy com­mu­nity, and the ben­e­fits would far out­weigh any slight uptick in a traf­fic count on a street.”

Look­ing to the fu­ture

Though the fi­nal ap­proval is still a cou­ple of months away, it’s hard for Mei and Moore not to dream about what The Farm at Los Olivos could be.

But for a pair so de­voted to the idea of bring­ing agri­cul­ture to ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments, there are even big­ger things at stake. They see projects like The Farm at Los Olivos as help­ing lay the foun­da­tion for the fu­ture of agri­cul­ture.

“Is ur­ban farm­ing the an­swer to feed 10 bil­lion peo­ple? As we know it to­day, it’s prob­a­bly not,” Mei says. “But there is va­lid­ity to a place where you can go in the mid­dle of a city and ex­pe­ri­ence agri­cul­ture and be re­minded of it and be able to taste it.”

“And I would ar­gue, as a farmer,” Moore says, “that these are de­ci­sions that will im­pact what’s it go­ing to look like here in 30 years. How do we grow responsibly from an agri­cul­tural stand­point and a de­vel­op­ment stand­point? I re­ally do feel that be­ing in touch with this can have im­pact. We need a place of joy and hos­pi­tal­ity and em­pa­thy in our lives so badly, and that’s what I see. A re­ally vi­brant, joy­ful place that’s a bea­con.”

TOP: JOHN JENK­INS; ABOVE: MICHAEL SCHENNUM/THE REPUB­LIC

Part­ners Matthew Moore (top) and Aric Mei (above) hope their pro­posed 4-acre de­vel­op­ment in Phoenix, The Farm at Los Olivos, can re­mind res­i­dents of the city’s agrar­ian roots — and take the “farm to table” con­cept to the next level.

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