Sustainable farming in the heart of Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix, the fifth largest—and second fastest growing—city in America gets a bad rap. On top of its infamous sprawl, there’s the “brown cloud” problem (pollution trapped by the mountains that ring the city), the 193 businesses that produce air pollution, and 2569 that produce hazardous waste. Doesn’t seem like a hospitable environment for living off the land.


But that didn’t stop Greg Peterson from transforming his patch of suburbia into a kind of natural supermarket. Peterson calls his ¾ of an acre an Urban Farm, on which he coaxes to blossom some 44 fruit trees (including Anna apple, apricot, and a desert-friendly variety called the low chill cherry), as well as broccoli, sweet peas, arugula, nasturtium, and many other veggies.

How is this different than, you know, a garden? In some ways it’s not—my mom’s got plenty of edible goodies growing in her own ¾ of an acre in western Massachusetts. But Urban Farm is both a laboratory—what works there can be replicated by other desert gardeners, gleaning tips from Peterson’s site—and a classroom. Peterson offers tours of his home (see the rainwater-catching cistern, or the outdoor shower, rigged to water the fig trees) and free classes in permaculture—a kind of sustainable gardening—to interested parties. Show up with a trowel and a willingness to work, and he’ll even put you up.


His goal is to make edible yards a standard for Phoenicians, well trained to ignore the natural environment (so many lawns and golf courses, brown and dry and begging for rain). And that means making such bucolism mainstream and palatable to the masses, wresting it from the hands of hippies. Sort of. “There are still hippies,” he said when I stopped by yesterday. “They just look like me.” (Read: clean cut with designer jeans and flip-flops.)


Will Peterson’s vision for permaculture Phoenix catch on? He’s been doing it for 17 years, and so far most of his neighbors are going the traditional grass-watering, non-edible lawn route. But he says attendance at courses has exploded. With all that traffic and smog, maybe folks will start edible yards just to steer clear of the brown cloud.


What is needed to accelarate the transFARMation movement (lawns to farms) is a replicable, economically viable business model. SPIN-Farming provides one. Developed by Canadian farmer Wally Satzewich, SPIN-Farming is an organic-based, non-technical, easy-to-learn, inexpensive-to-implement farming system that makes it possible to earn significant income from land under an acre in size. Minimal infrastructure, reliance on hand labor to accomplish most farming tasks, utilization of existing water sources to meet irrigation needs, and situating close to markets all keep investment and overhead costs low. SPIN is as close to a franchise-ready farming system as you can get while still respecting the creative and place-based nature of farming. It ia enabling a growing corps of first generation entrepreneurial farmers around the world to, literally, take matters into their own hands by establishing farm businesses wherever they live. Can thousands of backyards and front lawns and small lot farms be a solution to thousands of acres of monocrops? You bet!