by Agatha Gilmore | March 01, 2011

Deserts. Cacti. Tumbleweeds. That’s probably what most people think of when they picture Arizona. 

But these days, they might want to add “farm-fresh produce,” “locally raised meats,” and “award-winning wines” to that description. That’s because the state is home to a robust locally sourced, sustainable food movement.

“The perspective of Arizona is it’s a desert, so how can you possibly farm?” says Corby Stephens, general manager of Aventura, caterer to the Phoenix Convention Center. “At the same time, it’s actually relatively easy to farm in Arizona, as long as you know what you’re farming.”

Since 2007, Arizona has seen a 34 percent increase in direct agriculture sales, according to the latest U.S. agriculture census. The state currently boasts a $10.3 billion annual agriculture industry and is home to 15,000 farms and ranches. According to a recent article in The Arizona Republic, two of the top food trends in Arizona are hyper-local sourcing of food and a pointed focus on vegetables. With a 2010 National Restaurant Association survey predicting the three hottest U.S. food trends to be locally grown produce, locally sourced meats, and sustainability in food, the movement can only grow.

“People are looking to see what can come from local markets, whether it’s meats or cheeses, whether it’s produce, whether it’s wines—whatever the case may be,” Stephens says. “I would say that 60-70 percent of our clientele are specifically requesting [it] or asking the question, ‘What do you offer?’ ”

Nature’s Bounty
So, what does Arizona offer? Quite a bit. After all, farmers can plant and harvest all 12 months of the year, says Julie Murphree, director of public relations, marketing, and agricultural education for the Gilbert-based Arizona Farm Bureau.

Root vegetables—squash, zucchini, eggplant, onions, carrots—are easiest because they’re grown in the ground and therefore temperature resistant, Stephens says. Tomatoes or sweet peppers, however, have a three- to four-month season because they’re subject to the extreme heat and cold of desert life.

The climate of Arizona is also very similar to that of the Mediterranean, so the state produces a slew of products you might expect to find in southern Italy: olives; cheeses; herbs, such as rosemary, lavender and thyme; shrimp; and—perhaps most surprising of all—wine. In fact, Arizona has boasted top-notch wine since Franciscan missionaries planted the first vineyards here in the 17th century.

“We’ve been ranking in the top five and sometimes even beating out some of the French and California wines,” Murphree says of local vintages, two of which (from Dos Cabezas and Callagan Vineyards) have been served at the White House. “If meeting planners want to feature local, they absolutely need to check out our wines.”

Then there are desert-specific products, such as those infused with the agave plant, mesquite tree, prickly pear cactus, and other edible cacti.

“We’ve developed a cooking demo to include ethno-botanical and locally sourced ingredients,” says Emily Koeckhoven, corporate event and group sales manager for the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. “We cook with agave nectar and mesquite flour, and have napolitos [the pads of the prickly pear cactus] on that menu. Over the last four-and-a-half years, all the boxed lunches have been served with prickly pear iced tea—that has been a signature product.”

Stephens says the most important thing for planners to know is that many venues have partnerships with local farmers, so they know what’s being grown and when, and can customize menus around what the farms are producing, as well as what the client is looking for. He adds that it’s also possible to incorporate some desert flavors without alienating a broad audience.

“Most planners, when they’re looking at convention centers, [they] are planning for the masses—they don’t necessarily like going too extreme. We’re very careful of that,” he explains. “[For example], a lot of the cacti are very flavorful; they’re on par with a lot of your different squashes. So when we do vegetable medleys or bouquets on the plate, we’ll just add a piece into it. So there’s still that comfort of having everyone know what they’re eating.”

The bottom line, the experts say, is don’t let the desert culture fool you: Arizona is home to—and proud of—a hearty farming life. As Koeckhoven put it: “People are into this!”