The Past, Present and Future of
The Urban Farm
Part 1: The Past
by Greg Peterson
In Part 1 of this special 3 part series, Greg reviews the history of the Urban Farm itself and gives a sneak peek into the future of this local landmark and his business.
Well, the news is out and there are big changes in my life. Heidi and I are moving, and this is not a little move. We are transporting ourselves 1900 miles to our dream home in Asheville, North Carolina. Lots more to come about our landing place in the ‘future’ part of my writing. I want to assure you, however, with our team in place (Janis, Tayler, Theresa, Ray, Renee, Bill, Belle, and Kari) all of our programs will continue into the future just like they have for over 20 years. And for those of you that expect to see me on the ground in Phoenix – you still will for the Fruit Tree Program events and the Seed Up.
To begin my journey I thought I would review the Past of the Urban Farm, visit the Present and the biggest question I get…why are you moving?, and speculate on the Future of our new space. Here is a little teaser, we are moving mid-April 2022 to a quaint little town 10 miles from downtown Asheville, North Carolina. We found our ‘dream farm to be’ on 4 acres that is exploding with possibilities, way too many for me to choose right now.
Reflecting on the Past
But for the moment let’s talk about the Past of The Urban Farm. And for this part of my process we are going back to the early 1970’s. I’m in 8th grade and have to write a paper for biology class. For those of us that remember back that far, the paper was handwritten on lines paper in pencil! My topic…how we are overfishing the oceans. To this day I have no clue how I knew to write about this or what prompted me. However I think that Jacque Cousteau may have had an impact, as I used to watch him on the National Geographic television show.
As a side note I started my entrepreneurial adventures at the age of 15 cleaning and building fish ponds. Some for people to grow and harvest tilapia and catfish right in their back yard. I was very curious from a young age about all things fish farming and in 1981 found myself on the board of the Arizona Aquaculture Association. I have this memory of visiting a fish farm in Gila Bend, AZ where they were growing tilapia, harvesting the meat and throwing the leftover fish parts to the wild animals. This was wrong in so many ways, the two biggest being a waste of perfectly good fish parts (fertilizer) and artificially boosting the coyote and wildlife population.
The First Visions of the Farm
This got me thinking, what if we could create a farm where there was only usable products grown and all the previously considered ‘waste’ products became resources for moving the farm forward? So I designed on paper my vision of what we would call a regenerative farm, almost a decade before I would learn what that word really meant.
In 1991 there were four things that structurally changed my life forever. First, a flyer arrived in my mailbox for a Permaculture Design Course (PDC). Not sure how they found me, but I remember running in the house and calling immediately to register. That is where I learned about regenerative and so much more. Second, I discovered and read a book called Ishmael, by Danie Quinn. In the book Quinn explores how we as a culture went from food being free 10,000 years ago to the industrial food system we have today. That educated me about how we manufacture and lock up food in modern times.
Around this time, I was doing personal growth workshops at a place called Landmark Education and ended up taking their Advanced Course. We spent two weekends working on and verbalizing the vision for our life. Mine…I am the person on the planet responsible for transforming our food global system. Now that may seem like a lot and in many ways, it is – for me it occurred as my get up call each morning. Not the perceived burden of, oh I have to go out and do this, but more an OMG guess what I get to do today. A motivation that created excitement to thrust me out of bed and get my creative juices flowing.
And finally, the frosting on the proverbial cake. A friend was sailing in the South Pacific and anchored at an island looking for a grocery store. They were told ‘go pick you own’. That floored me. There are actually places on the planet where food is still free? This final piece threaded the rest of my life together and I set out to transform a food system and empower people to grow their own.
I spent the next decade learning how nature works through studying, practicing, and implementing permaculture in my yard and life. And in the mid 90’s I decided it was time to start writing. Next, I did what I always had done in the past – I registered for a writing class at the local community college and before long I was neck deep in writing and registering at Arizona State University for a Bachelor’s degree, to my dad’s delight.
During my undergrad classes I was assigned a paper to create a mission in life. Talking a hint from a decade earlier, but on a local level, I realized that I was already doing what I wanted so the next logical step for me: name my farm and open my permaculture yard to the public. The house that I had purchased in 1989, with a yard that I had been gardening for over a decade became the Urban Farm, an environmental showcase home designed to inspire my friends, neighbors, and the other 4+ million people in the Valley of the Sun to do this themselves.
Sharing the Harvest
It has now been 20 years since I offered the first tours and the impact of the string of steps I took along the way has had an astounding effect on both Phoenix and I. In the beginning I would set up the tent in the front yard 6 to 8 Saturdays per year and have only a few people or sometimes no one show up. But if you know me you understand I was not deterred and planned the next one and the next and next. Until it got to a point where one tour wasn’t enough, adding two on Saturday and one on Friday.
Plus, I use the principle of ‘stacking functions’ from permaculture to add a private tour here and there on tour weekend. Hey, if I have to clean, mow and generally make the yard look great, make sure to show it off as much as possible! These days we get upwards of 150 to 200 people interested in seeing a 32 year old organic ‘old growth food forest’ in action. People from all walks of life show up to discover how they too can begin or advance the process of growing their own food, asking beginner, intermediate and advanced questions, and seeing in real time what could be possible in their space.
Enjoying the Fruits of the labor
I had no idea the level of impact that my work had made until in January 2022 when Heidi and I announced that we were moving. For me I just do what I do every day, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary, it is my way of being, my stand to transform food and how we perceive it. The outpouring of acknowledgment is humbling and affirming that the work that I have been and will continue to do has left inspiration and action in people’s lives. The highlight of many days is receiving emails from people with pics of their gardens sent by proud parents of their new garden, that fills their belly and soul.
Then there is that thought which is never far from my mind that I penned in 1996. “Our downfall as a species is that we are arrogant enough to think we can control mother nature and stupid enough to think it is our job.” This is my motivator to share and inspire people to look to see how they can work with nature. Discovering their own drive to work cooperatively in the flow of nature rather than against a title wave that likely cannot be stopped.
For now, remember the easiest thing to grow and most expensive thing to buy are herbs, which can be grown in a sunny windowsill. Plant something, get gardening or farming if you are motivated, and stay tuned for what is next in your life and my adventure.
Coming next week… The Present of The Urban Farm