For more than 25 years, David Vose, his partner, Sara Dolan, and their crews at Blue Sky Organic Farms have enjoyed unencumbered views of the Estrella Mountains in the distance as they worked, but that won’t be the case much longer.
Soon, a wall will go up as Fulton Homes prepares to build hundreds of houses on 23 leased acres Vose and Dolan have farmed off Perryville Road at Coolidge Street in unincorporated Litchfield Park.
When the lease expires July 1, the popular organic farm that has been in operation since 1995 will have lost 70% of its farmland, leaving fewer than 10 acres on which to grow the fresh produce sold in the Blue Sky farm store and at the Downtown Phoenix, Gilbert, Old Town Scottsdale, Roadrunner Park and Uptown farmers’ markets.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that Vose and Dolan own the 20 acres at 4762 N. 189th Ave. where they will continue to grow smaller amounts of more than 100 varieties of produce, raise the goats that love eating carrot tops and animal crackers from visitors’ hands, and operate the store that draws customers from across the West Valley who snap up organic strawberries, melons, lettuce, sweet corn and other produce fresh from Blue Sky’s fields, as well as produce from other farms and breads, cheeses, honey and more from small local businesses.
And thanks to help from Valley organizations like the Local First Arizona, Pinnacle Prevention and the Coalition for Farmland Preservation that helped get the word out about their plight, earlier this month Vose and Dolan signed a five-year lease on 40 acres owned by the Justice family a few miles away in Waddell.
Had the two-year search not been successful just days before the lease was up, Blue Sky would have become history in Arizona. Vose and Dolan would have been forced to find land out of state and move their farming operation.
“We really didn’t want to abandon the work and the mission and the people we serve here,” Vose said. “That’s why we decided not to leave.”
Blue Sky’s new land is part of 180 acres off Peoria Avenue east of Loop 303 that have been farmed by the Justice family for nearly 100 years. Vose calls the Justice Brothers Ranch land “an oasis of ag land in the middle of all kinds of development” that includes housing tracts, Woolf Logistics Campus, the White Claw and Red Bull distribution centers and other industrial development.
“It’s a good piece of dirt,” he said of the 40 acres, which has lain fallow for some time and will take months to prepare for Blue Sky’s first crops.
In addition to tending the crops in Litchfield Park and removing the infrastructure from the land they’re losing, Vose and his crew will work on the new land over the summer. They will till and test the soil, remove weeds and hundreds of trees, install an irrigation system, take out cattle fencing and install 4-foot-high, electrified fencing around the entire 40 acres to keep out coyotes, javelina and other critters that could contaminate the fields. They also will put in a sump, make 400 tons of compost, and begin spreading the organic matter that will feed the crops.
“It’s a real balancing act,” Vose said of soil preparation. “It’s very precise. Plants are in a symbiotic relationship with the organic nutrients. You can’t just put it down and plant.”
If all goes well, the first crops, which will mirror what will be planted on the current farm site, will occur in September or October, Vose said.
Getting to that point will not be easy, nor will it be cheap.
“It’s a huge project,” that will cost about $250,000, Vose said. The irrigation system alone will cost at least $100,000.
To help Vose raise the money, Pinnacle Prevention, a nonprofit whose mission is to inspire and advance a healthy food system, has set up a GoFundMe account, with all proceeds going to the farm.
As of Saturday, June 26, a little more than $17,000 had been raised.
To contribute, visit charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/keep-blue-sky-farming.
Blue Sky isn’t the only small farm impacted by development. At least four Valley farms are in the same predicament that faced Vose and Dolan.
Helene Tack, a sustainability liaison with Local First Arizona, a nonprofit founded in 2009 to promote an inclusive and sustainable economy, said the loss of small farms is devastating not only to the farmers but to those who depend on them.
Between 1997 and 2017, Maricopa County lost 37% of its farmland, and 89% of its citrus operations, Tack said.
“When we lose these community farms, we lose the ability to feed ourselves,” she said.
“It’s hard to grow food here; it takes a lot of skill,” Tack said. “Farmers like David know how to grow here.”
Local farms provide jobs, and they can help reduce the rate of food insecurity, which is more than 12% in Maricopa County, Tack said.
They also provide much-needed green space in a rapidly developing region challenged by increasing periods of extreme heat. In 2020, the Valley sweltered through 145 triple-digit days, with 53 of them registering 110 degrees and above, and a July and August that were the hottest on record.
“Interspersing these farms can help the urban heat affect,” she said.
Formed about a year ago, the Coalition for Farmland Preservation plans to conduct a mapping exercise to determine what is at risk and to find solutions, and to find paths to ownership for small farmers, who can’t come up with the $250,000 per acre the land they lease is now selling for in many cases.
Tack said among other things, coalition members are working closely with the city of Phoenix, which has a food action plan.
They also hope to work with developers Valleywide to create solutions like Agritopia, a 166-acre mixed-use planned community in Gilbert that includes an 11-acre organic farm in the midst of homes and businesses.
That’s something Vose would have loved to have seen in his community.
“There’s no preservation model here. There’s no great love for agriculture,” he said, noting that he’s dedicated to working with the coalition to find solutions and to convince local decision-makers and state lawmakers to act to preserve farmland in the West Valley and around Arizona.
“Pennsylvania has done that, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, Maryland, the upper Midwest, Oregon, California,” Vose said, expressing the hope that Arizona will follow suit because, “we’re giving up all the best land.”
People come to farms like Blue Sky to connect with the land and the food grown there, and that’s worth preserving, he said.
“I’m all for some kind of intervention for farmland. We shouldn’t develop it all. Yeah, we need growth and money is important, but it’s not everything,” Vose said. “Agriculture is built into the backbone of California. It provides a big part of their national identity. We have that opportunity here.”
Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 760-963-1697.