Farm to table via Phoenix park proposal
Phoenix park proposal aims to connect residents with agriculture
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.”
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.