Greg Peterson has been growing food in the Phoenix area for more than four decades, but the idea of turning an urban-farming hobby into a business wasn’t hatched until 2001.
Then a student at Arizona State University with years as a hobbyist grower under his belt – he’d already planted and nurtured a one-third-acre permaculture garden – Peterson was challenged by a professor to write down a vision for his life.
His idea for an educational platform on urban farming – coined, simply, Urban Farm – was planted then. It germinated as Peterson began offering classes, both online at urbanfarm.org and in-person. He encouraged people to plant their own edible landscapes, while also sponsoring events that promote fruit trees and vegetable seeds.
He's still going strong 16 years later, and his commitment has quite literally borne fruit. The Urban Farm’s fruit tree planting program has helped residents plant over 10,000 fruit trees and it's expected to plant more than 5,000 this year.
“I want to teach people how to grow their own healthy, nutritious food for their families right in their front and backyards,” said Peterson, a former adjunct professor at ASU.
Peterson says his aim is to help people become more connected to the food they eat. He wants people to take control of their health and foster a more enriching life and gets his message across by teaching people in the urban setting of Phoenix how to grow their own food.
“All sorts of chemicals are used in our food,” Peterson said. “We’re also growing a lot of non-nutritious food. Studies have shown how our soils are getting used up. Basically, the micro-nutrients that we need in our food have all been used up.”
For years, Peterson had been learning through trial and error how to grow food on his own. He converted his own mini- farm's flower beds to garden plots and replaced the non-edible trees with fruit trees during the 1990s. What he couldn’t learn on his own Peterson attained at school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in 2004 and a master’s in urban and environmental planning in 2006, both from ASU.
Over the years his tutorials and seminars have earned him a cult following, drawing people from across the state. One of them is Gayle Wayers, who has been a customer for about six years. She lives more 100 miles away, yet drives all the way to Phoenix to pick up her fruit trees from the Urban Farm.
“We have an orchard here, called Loma Bonita, in Ajo, Arizona,” Wayers said. “We are a non-profit that just grows fruits and vegetables to increase the food supply in our rural town. Greg has been so helpful."
About 18 months ago, Peterson added a podcast to the Urban Farm portfolio, which Wayers follows and sometimes participates in. The podcast has grown in popularity, attracting listeners from around the world. In January, his listenership went up 50 percent, from 30,000 listeners to 45,000, and the podcast has now drawn more than 400,000 listeners overall, Peterson says.
The Urban Farm also has a newsletter, which keeps enthusiasts abreast of the latest news in organic farming and agriculture.
A number of issues in modern agriculture weigh on Peterson, but one area of particular concern is that most food is not grown locally. That requires food to travel great distances, and "this means the food is harvested before it’s ripe,” Peterson explained. “So, it’s not as nutritionally dense as it would be if you harvested it right when it was ready to eat.”
While the issues he tackles in his classes and podcast can seem daunting, there is a bright spot: Peterson's hobby has become a successful, full-time job. The Urban Farm’s revenues last year exceeded his expectations, allowing him to reinvest a lot of his profits back into the company.
“It’s really serving me by doing what it needs to do – which is getting the word out and forwarding my goal of making Phoenix a food-secure space."
Follow the Urban Farm on Twitter at @TheUrbanFarm.