Arizona’s Biggest Secret: A Lush Utopia in the Heart of the Desert
The middle of the desert is the last place you might expect to find a thriving organic agricultural hub. Yet that’s where I found myself in April, sitting in the shade of tall 100-year-old trees on a 166-acre urban farm and planned community in Gilbert, Arizona, called Agritopia.
Gilbert, a suburb of 230,000 just southeast of Phoenix, was recently named by Money Magazine as one of the most liveable small cities in the United States, and Travel and Leisure called it one of the country’s coolest suburbs to visit.
The phenomenon of agricultural neighbourhoods, “agrihoods” for short, is taking the country by storm, and bringing the concept of agricultural living back into the mainstream. No longer is the urban farm reserved for the hipster and neo-hippie set. Agritopia’s residents come from all walks of life, and the waiting list to obtain a coveted 12×12 community garden plot is growing. This is a place where people don’t just shuck “farm-to-table” because it’s on-trend, they actually live it every day.
As we wind our way through Agritopia’s farmlands, orchards and community gardens, it’s easy to see why so many people rave about this sunny community. It almost seems too perfect. A young woman on a bicycle rounds the bend with a basket full of fresh produce harvested that day from the honour-system farm stand. She smiles and waves to us as if she’s known us for years. Later I spot the largest zucchini I’ve ever seen. I assume some sort of genetic modification or growth hormone must be the culprit, but instead the friendly owner of the zuchini informed me that it’s all natural. All of the produce grown at Agritopia adheres to the USDA organic protocol.
There’s a very real sense of community here that is genuine, not forced. Residents embrace the positives of the “simpler life” philosophy, and there are plenty of ways to socialize and meet your neighbours. One of my favourites: Wine & Weeding Wednesdays.
It’s not just the community’s human residents who seem happy, healthy and radiant. We pass a spacious pen of chickens energetically dashing in and out of orange trees and pecking at the clover that grows beneath them. Our bubbly host, Joe Johnston, explains that the chickens, the clover and the orange trees are all part of a natural agricultural cycle: the chickens trim the clover, their primary food source, and in turn fertilize the soil with the nitrogen-rich byproduct which the orange trees use to thrive, provide shade for the chickens, and organic oranges for the farm.
Joe’s family has owned a home here since 1966. Today it’s the site of Joe’s Farm Grill, a ranch-style mid-century modern diner that decimated my expectations of diner food. Joe’s throwback diner was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins & Dives, and is truly a destination restaurant, turning out everything from juicy burgers to tuna salads, all with produce grown—literally—steps away. It’s the shortest farm-to-fork journey you can get.
I’m not exaggerating when I say the Fontina Burger (US$9.49) may be the best burger I’ve ever had. The juicy 6 oz. patty is made from local beef, topped with farm-fresh roasted red pepper, grilled mushrooms, field greens and a house-made pecan pesto. In true American style, it is gigantic. You may want to invite a few friends to help you finish everything. The sashimi-grade Ahi Tuna Sandwich (US$13.99) is seared rare and topped with freshly made Asian slaw. But no matter how full you get you’ll still want to order the Onion Rings (US$4.99) which are hand-breaded in a divine rosemary-dill Panko crumb. You can revisit your fitness routine another day.
Coffee and cupcakes are on site, too, with free WiFi. You could easily spend half a day on The Coffee Shop’s tranquil patio, and I am quite sad to leave.
As I run to catch my flight home, stuffing my face with the remnants of one of Joe’s organic oranges, I feel as though I’ve uncovered Arizona’s best-kept secret.
If You Go
Continue your foodie adventures at Postino East Wine Café and Liberty Market in downtown Gilbert. Head to Virtu Honest Craft in Scottsdale for an evening cocktail in a beautiful courtyard garden, and rest your head in boutique hotel Bespoke Inn, Café and Bicycles where you can borrow a classic Pashley bicycle to explore the area.
On this trip: Food and drink supplied by Joe’s Farm Grill, The Coffee Shop, Postino East Wine Café, Virtu Honest Craft and supported by Visit Mesa and Scottsdale CVB.