Peter Bigfoot: Pioneering Urban Farmer
By Patricia Sanders
As a Valley urban farmer, Peter Bigfoot was a man ahead of his time.
In the early seventies, Bigfoot and a friend bought a house in Sunnyslope and grew an urban Eden on its third of an acre. The property was very rocky, so they trucked in topsoil salvaged from swimming pool dump sites, and they built a stone wall to hold the new soil. Then they planted navel orange, blood orange, and persimmon trees, established a vineyard, grew vegetables in the flowerbeds, and built a 200-square-foot greenhouse—with a homemade pop-can solar heater for winter warmth.
When we visited the Sunnyslope house recently, the current owner remembered the yard’s productivity. Unfortunately, Bigfoot’s passion for growing wasn’t shared by subsequent owners, and most of the trees, as well as the grape vines, were allowed to perish. A few of the plants are still growing, however, and the greenhouse still stands. As we toured the dry, neglected backyard, it was easy to envision how a permaculture-minded person could quickly restore the space to its former vitality.
In 1976 Bigfoot completed the legendary solo foraging trek that made his name as a desert survival expert, and soon he started teaching wilderness survival. In 1980 he moved out of town, to the off-grid homestead in the Tonto National Forest where he now lives and farms. For 35 years and counting, on a 13-acre private inholding six miles from the nearest neighbor, he has been growing, teaching (wilderness survival skills, native herbology, and natural healing) and making a line of herbal remedies for sale. Bigfoot has tended this land nearly half of his long and vigorous life, and in its vitality and color, it certainly has come to reflect his character.
In the first year on the land, Bigfoot and two dozen others cleared an overgrown hayfield and established an acre vegetable garden; planted 52 fruit and nut trees (done by three men in a single weekend!); renovated the original farmhouse—which, according to Bigfoot, had been carpeted with cattle manure and packrat nests—and built a stone-masonry solar-heated shower house. The people lived in backpacking tents and then constructed canvas teepees, which were soon replaced by what Bigfoot calls yurpees—a yurt-teepee combo that is light on the land, inexpensive to build, and suited to the climate. He still lives in one.
Now, the farm has an orchard of more than one hundred fruit and nut trees—from apricots to peaches to persimmons—a 3,000-square-foot vineyard, a 10,000-gallon water tank filled by a solar pump, and numerous outbuildings, including four cozy cabins for overnight guests. There are flocks of chickens, Vietnamese geese, turkeys, three farm cats, and a seasonal population of bats. The farm’s mascot is a seven year-old gobbler named Harvey, who has his own fan club—there are visitors who come back every year to get their picture taken with him. The farm’s motto is “Live What You Love.”
Bigfoot will sometimes call this place his “paradise prison,” but officially it’s Reevis Mountain School of Self-Reliance, named for the mountain peak that towers over the farm’s narrow, green valley. Self-reliance is the main concept Bigfoot aims to pass on to his students and visitors.
“Self-reliance is freedom and security,” Bigfoot says with a grin. “In my younger years I spent a lot of time being sick from whatever disease was going around at the time. I began to understand that my body was the most precious thing in my life. I began to be very conscious of what I ate, and realized that the healthiest food was what I could grow myself.”
Peter Bigfoot is a tall, lean man, white-haired and blue-eyed, with large, callused hands and feet worthy of his moniker. He makes shoes for them himself, just as he built his own house, grows his own food, and heals his own wounds. At 73, he puts in dawn-to-dusk days gardening, orcharding, making tinctures and salves, teaching WWOOFers and students what he knows about life and its contents, and doing all the other innumerable tasks of a farmsteader.
Since the mid-eighties Reevis’s produce has been highly valued by Valley chefs for its purity, vitality and flavor. In the days of Tempe’s Gentle Strength Co-op, Bigfoot was a regular supplier—many former members recall the hundreds of pounds of persimmons that Peter delivered personally every fall. Today he delivers to Café Allegro at MIM in Scottsdale, Pizzeria Bianco at Town and Country and other beloved Valley eateries. He also sells at the Globe-Miami farmers market on Saturday mornings from June to October at Globe’s City Hall.
Reevis participates in the WWOOFing program (though interns don’t have to be members of that organization), accepting about a dozen applicants each year for stints of two months or more. Bigfoot teaches classes on site in the spring and fall, and every year upwards of 500 visitors make their way up the six-mile forest road (4X4 or horse required) to Bigfoot’s doorstep. Thousands have experienced Reevis Mountain School over the years, and many have found healing, inspiration and a new direction there. In their comments, they often call the place “magical.”
Bigfoot points out that it’s not necessary to have a large spread to grow enough food for your family. Anyone who has a 10′ by 10′ vegetable garden can produce enough vegetables for a family, he says, and the Phoenix valley offers a favorable climate, with good soil and available water in most places.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a man named Bigfoot needed to leave his tidy urban farm for wilder pastures. But it was while living in Sunnyslope that he started to put into practice the skills of self-reliance that he teaches today and, similarly, he has plenty of knowledge, wisdom and inspiration for Valley urban farmers—even though Bigfoot himself is about as un-urban as you can get.
Reevis Mountain School is currently seeking interns, as well as an on-site office manager. Please visit the farm’s website at reevismountain.org for information.