Digging into agritourism in Mesa, AZ

Digging into agritourism in Mesa, AZ

Canadian travellers may think of sunny skies and top-notch golfing as the primary reasons to visit Arizona, but the state has a distinct food culture, too. That makes it a prime destination for those seeking agritourism experiences and foodie travel – as PAXnewsWest.com learned first hand on a recent trip with Visit Mesa and Visit Tucson.

Mesa and the surrounding areas of Gilbert and Queen Creek encompass much of the farmland that serves the Greater Phoenix area. Visitors can explore the region’s agritourism offerings along the Fresh Foodie Trail, a self-guided itinerary with stops at working farms that offer a glimpse into country life along with plenty of activities to keep all members of the family entertained. We stopped at several points along the trail as we made our way southeast from Mesa to Tucson.

Starting in the heart of Mesa, we visited True Garden, a 5,000-square-foot “vertical urban farm” using aeroponic technology to produce fresh fruits and vegetables visitors can purchase at the garden’s farm stand. Owner Troy Albright told PAXnewsWest.com that the garden will become an official agritourism destination in January, offering information on alternative growing methods and healthy eating.

On Mesa’s more rural side, we visited Superstition Dairy Farms, a fourth-generation working farm run by the brother-and-sister team of Casey and Alison Stechnij. After feeding the goats, we hopped on a hayride to view the dairy cows. As we rounded a corner, Casey Stechnij spotted a cow in the early stages of labour, and we watched, enthralled, as a small hoof began to emerge. While Stechnij said the birthing process can take several hours, the calf was born before we left the farm, and we were able to watch the mother cow tending to her new baby. That experience may have been exceptional, but all visitors can enjoy the hayride and learn about life on a family dairy farm – and get a taste of the farm’s exceptional ice cream and Greek yogurt.

In Gilbert, we visited Agritopia, the brainchild of entrepreneur and restaurateur Joe Johnston, who is well known in the area for his role in the revitalization of Gilbert’s historic town centre. Formerly the Johnston family farm, Agritopia is now a unique master-planned agricultural community with extensive community gardens, commercial farmlands and a 24-hour honour-system farm stand. Visitors can take a farm tour, or just partake of the farm’s produce at Joe’s Farm Grill, as featured on the TV show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Moving on to Queen’s Creek, we stopped at Hayden Flour Mills at Sossaman Farms, where master miller Benjamin Butler showcased heirloom varieties of wheat in a cracker-tasting session. Founder Jeff Zimmerman launched the project to restore the cultivation of heirloom seeds in 2011, and the company now sells flours, crackers and other grain products, and offers tours that show visitors the importance of restoring the cultivation of native heritage seeds.

At Queen Creek Olive Mill, co-owner Perry Rea led an olive oil tasting, explaining the oil’s three key flavour components: fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. Arizona offers the perfect growing conditions for olives, and the mill presses all of its own oils, made from olives grown on site. Visitors can take a 45-minute tour, or stop in for breakfast or lunch at the mill’s Del Piero restaurant, which features olive oil in many of its recipes – including cupcakes.

Just down the road from the olive mill, we visited Schnepf Farms, a very family-friendly destination that combines farm activities like an organic u-pick garden and corn mazes with an entertainment area offering several rides, including the oldest operating carousel in Arizona. Co-owner Mark Schnepf told PAXnewsWest.com that the farm welcomes a quarter of a million visitors per year, including 50,000 who come to pick peaches at the largest peach producer in Arizona.

Heading southeast to Florence, we stopped at Windmill Winery, a stunning wedding venue that hosted 276 wedding last year. Visitors without marriage on their minds can sample wines in the wine tasting room; head winemaker Kevin Parsons is currently expanding the vineyards. He’s also working on creating craft beers using local ingredients, including a unique prickly pear brew.

Arriving in Tucson, it was time to dive into a more urban foodie experience. Watch this space for details of our tasting journey through Tucson’s 23 miles of Mexican food.

Learn more about Visit Mesa’s Fresh Foodie Trail at visitmesa.com/lifestyles/fresh-foodie.