Winter in Arizona Part 3: Mesa Foodie Trail V 3.0 (read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series)
It was our third visit to the Mesa Fresh Foodie Trail, and it just keeps getting bigger and better! Our first trip was way back at the beginning of the Trail, in fact, we were among the first travel writers to cover it. You will find about a dozen agritourism gems, along with numerous brewpubs, food truck gatherings and eating establishments on the Trail. Our favorite part of all of your travel writing is to visit with owners and chefs and to hear their stories. The farmers on the Trail were no exception. Some are 4th generation farmers, whose land has been re-purposed from what their grandparents did. Their dedication to farming is very inspiring, as the city grew up around them.
We stopped in to visit our friends at Queen Creek Olive Mill. We had made our acquaintance with them on one of our previous trips. Brenda and Perry Rae sold their auto parts store in Detroit in 1998. They came to Arizona and planted 7,000 olive trees. At the time, they had four small children and another one on the way! Perry actually didn’t know much about olive growing, so before the first tree was planted, he went to California and then to Italy to pick the brains of the experts. They all agreed that Arizona would be perfect since the trees thrive in warm climates. Also beneficial is the low humidity, which means fewer bug issues and spring pollination is less effected with so little rain. (It’s not just people who are happy that it’s a dry heat!)
When we last visited – we experienced the full tasting and education workshop. Queen Creek Olive Mill makes a multitude of different oils. We started with the Robust Extra Virgin Olive Oil and enjoyed the strong flavors that one finds only in the early harvest olives. Great for dipping bread! However, my favorite was their Blood Orange Olive Oil with a light fruit nose. This makes the best marinade for grilling chicken, which we found at their Italian influenced Eatery, located in the massive market. Since we last visited, Queen Creek, the Rae family has added a highly regarded line of personal care products made from their olive oil, which you can find in many Whole Food markets. And, boy do they have big plans! They were officially re-zoned in October of 2019 in order to add additional olive groves, a larger restaurant, a bottling warehouse, event hall, spa/pool, cider mill, brewery and a boutique bed-and-breakfast! Who knew how far that auto-parts store would take the Rae family!
Our next stop was Hayden Flour at Sossaman Farm; this was more like two stops in one. Hayden Flour and Sossaman Farm are independent enterprises that have joined forces. Sossaman Farms has been a family farm for over 100 years and four generations. Nancy and Jasper Sossaman left Galveston, Texas in 1914 and came to Arizona to start over after a hurricane wiped out their pig farm. Soon after arriving, Jasper passed away, and Nancy was left to fend for herself and her three sons. When the opportunity to homestead in Olive Creek came up – they jumped on it. They started as a vegetable farm, then branched out to potatoes, cotton and grains. Today they farm mainly alfalfa, wheat and barley. What makes Sossaman Farms unique is that they grow only “heritage” grains. Heritage, or ancient, grains come from plants that have never been hybridized. If you compare pictures of grain fields from even 30 years ago to fields today, you can easily see how the modern grains have changed. With an eye to higher yield, higher gluten, and easier harvesting – it's almost like comparing distinctly different crops. The seeds that Sossaman uses come from stock that is hundreds, even thousands of years old. Soon after helping to pioneer the heritage grain market in Arizona, Steve Sossaman created Grain R & D, which is a unique, end-to-end production of heritage grains. They collaborate with the local culinary markets, such as breweries, bakeries, distilleries, and chefs, to create the exact grain product that they need. They then comprise the entire process from seed selection, cultivation, harvest, cleaning, storage and use.
A partnership with Hayden Flour Mills was thus born. Jeff Zimmerman approached Steve Sossaman to be the source for the flour mill in Queen Creek. Jeff also comes from a farm family tradition. He grew up in North Dakota, on his family’s farm until his parents had to sell. Falling grain prices and the loss of small family farms was an unintended outcome of the “Green Revolution” of the ’50s and ‘60s when many small farms were swooped up by large industrial farms. Hayden Flour Mill makes flours that are distributed all over the United States. Their flour is stone milled and crafted according to its intended use. Along with all-purpose flour, they also offer specialty for pasta, pizza, artisan bread, along with flours made from corn, and chickpeas. They also have a delicious trio of White Sonora Heritage Grain crackers, each with an international taste: Za’atar (middle eastern spice mix), Hawaij (originally from Yemen) and Harissa (North African spices and peppers).
Jeff (a.k.a. The Mad Grain Scientist) is also known as an excellent baker, and even offers classes. His daughter Emma (a.k.a. The Brains of the Operation) keeps things running smoothly on the business end of things.
Our next stop was Steadfast Farm, a tiny, bio-intensive farm located at Eastmark, a large scale, master-planned community in the heart of Mesa. Steadfast Farm grows fruits, vegetables, and flowers, and also raises pastured poultry for eggs. Erich Schultz is the farmer on this small 1.75-acre plot. The crops are planted in 100 ft. rows that are designed to keep production consistent throughout the growing season. They keep strict records of when a row is planted and plant the next row to start bearing produce just as the previous row has stopped. So they get a continuous and large production for such a small farm! Jeff has been farming since 2007 in various locations. One of the challenges of high-density, small plots farming is finding the right equipment. For instance, high density means that it would take a long time to seed the rows by hand, but small plots means that you aren’t going to get normal farm machinery down that row. He uses a seeder that was developed for just that purpose in South Korea, along with a number of implements that he has built for his use. Erich and his wife have developed many “agrihoods” and other bio-intensive market farms throughout the state. His produce can be found in a number of Farmers Markets in the area, and also at the Farm Store.
It is not a trip to the Mesa area without a stop at Agritopia in nearby Gilbert! Agritopia is located on land that was originally farmed in 1927. In 1960, Jim Johnston bought the farm from the original owners. Jim and his wife Virginia grew cotton and wheat while they were also raising their three sons. As the years went by, suburban development was quickly encroaching. Faced with losing the farm, the family brainstormed about practical ways to preserve their land. Son Joe Johnson had graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree – just what is called for when you want to transform a working farm to a housing development that also happens to have a working farm!
When we first visited Agritopia in 2017, we were charmed by the intention and planning that went into the community. The plan included housing units that would be ideal for a diversity of family configurations, from small bungalows and cottages to large family homes. All of the homes had front porches that faced the large, green common. Fences were kept low, and the community was inspired by the planning. The farming aspect was preserved by the Johnston Family Foundation of Urban Agriculture, which is dedicated to providing education and resources for urban farming. Today, Agritopia boasts 11 acres of certified organic farmland. The surrounding community of an eclectic assortment of homes looks out over acres of crops, including artichokes, tomatoes, carrots, kale, and grapes, and orchards of grapefruit, olives, and peaches. The produce is served at high-end restaurants throughout the Phoenix area, as well as at any one of the numbers of eating establishments located at Agritopia itself.
Joe’s Farm Grill is perhaps the most famous, having been featured in Diners, Drive-ins & Dives on the Food Network. Since our first visit there, they have added a few new places. This trip we stopped into Fire and Brimstone, an excellent pizza restaurant located in a large complex called Barnone, a community of twelve “makers” located in a large 1950’s Quonset hut. Barnone is home to a wide variety of craftsmen, including a brewpub, gunsmith, machine shop, winery and greeting card maker. But we were most interested in the pizza! Fire and Brimstone is owned and operated by James Johnson (son of Agritopia’s mastermind Joe Johnson). It is happily located close to 12 West Brewing, so we ordered our Margherita pizza and took a seat at 12 West to wait. Michael ordered a Zona Pilsner, which was crisp and light. I went for the Frontside IPA, which was very hoppy (75 IBU). Along with this west coast style IPA, they offer a New England style – which is much lighter. When Michael tasted it – he deemed it the “IPA for people who don’t like IPA’s”. And then – the moment we were waiting for – the pizza arrived. Fire and Brimstone’s wood-fired oven did a great job on this. The crust was puffed up and charred in just the right amount. The marinara was tangy, the mozzarella was fresh, and the basil was straight out of the Agritopia farm. Talk about local!
BBQ comes in many different styles – Memphis, Carolina, Texas, etc. Our next stop would be the ultimate taste of Arizona BBQ! Jalapeno Bucks is located right across the street from B & B Citrus Farms. The outside-seating-only BBQ stand is famous for what is locally called “new wave Mexican soul food”. (That is a lot of cultural appropriation in one small phrase!) Sitting at one of the long picnic tables, you can gaze across citrus trees that are over 100 years old. Once your meal arrives, though, you won’t be paying attention to anything else! Owners Duaine and Dianne Burden also have a lot of history in the area. Duaine grew up, working in the orange groves that surround the stand. Dianne was famous for her homemade burritos and what started as a favor for friends, soon grew out of control. She started making the burritos and leaving them in a fridge on their front porch. She would then send a text to her 600 contact list to let everyone know that she’d been cooking. First come, first served, leave your money in the box! She added homemade salsa to the fridge – and things were really going strong. During the last recession, they both lost their jobs – one of those bad/things-good/things. It must have seemed bad at the time, but it has certainly been good for the culinary scene on the Mesa Foodie Trail. Michael went for the gusto with the 3 Way Burrito – beans, pork and cheese. And it was as messy as it was tasty! I had the Brisket Quesadilla, with lean, tender and juicy brisket. Both dishes were graced with some of that homemade salsa – which was excellent. I think we tried all of the varieties offered – mild, sweet green, mango, hot Mexican red, and hot gringo green. I loved the mango, with a nice balance of sweet mango and spicy chili peppers. Michael had to try the Hot Mexican Red, but I think he replaced it with the Gringo Green when I wasn’t looking.
Another Arizona adventure had come and gone, another “next time” list filled out, and it was time to go home. Even before we landed in cold, wet Seattle, we knew we’d be back.
Editorial disclosure: lodging, beverages, and food generously provided