A Food-Safe Phoenix: Q&A with Urban Farmer Greg Peterson
The urban farming expert talks fruit tree education, the local food economy and a lifelong passion for sustainable produce.
By Carly Scholl
Phoenix Home & Garden: How long have you been teaching the Urban Fruit Tree Education Program?
Greg Peterson: The education program has been around for 21 years. It started in my living room in 1999 and I would actually have three or four people come to my living room and I would give a free class there. Over the years it built up from there. Originally we’d sell about 100 trees a year. Then around 2010, after the economic downturn, people were becoming much more interested in where their food came from. We were selling around 500 to 1,000 trees then, and today, we sell approximately 5,000 fruit trees to the people who engage in these classes.
PHG: Why do you think these classes are important for people who want to grow fruit trees?
Peterson: The most important thing about the fruit tree program is that people learn how to be successful with these particular kinds of plants. We teach them which fruit trees to buy because you can go into most nurseries in any big box store in town and they will sell you a tree that will never make fruit in the low desert because it just isn’t adapted to the climate. I was in a Walmart maybe five years ago and every single one of their peach trees was marked “peach.” Now, there are 500 to 1000 different varieties of peaches, and only about 10 or 12 of those will actually produce fruit here in the low desert.
PHG: Have you noticed an increased interest in growing fruit trees ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began?
Peterson: Absolutely. We originally offered 30 gardening classes in 30 days for free on our website, but when we realized there was a lockdown coming, it turned into 60 classes in 90 days. We had well over 10,000 people tuning in to learn the ins and outs of growing fruit trees.
The most important thing that we could be doing right now as a culture is figuring out where our food comes from and how to grow. In any urban area, there is approximately a three day supply of food, and we saw exactly what happened when that supply was strained in the middle of March and grocery store shelves were empty.
PHG: How will this year’s education program differ from years past?
Peterson: What we decided to do this year to respect social distancing and quarantine was an online virtual series of classes. We’ve hired a company that’s versed in doing online summits to help us so they’ll be doing the broadcasting
and I’ll be teaching out of my home. Each class will be about 15 minutes, and they cover all sorts of topics—some success stories, some failures. Thomas Spellman from Wilson Nursery will be bringing some video content to the table.
PHG: Why do you think growing your own produce is important? Is it an achievable goal for all people, regardless of their property size and skill level?
Peterson: Growing foods in cities is the solution to our global food problem. There are so many different ways we can achieve this, but we have to come together communally to do it. We have to collaborate. Urban farming, or what we sometimes call “backyard orchard culture” doesn’t require heavy equipment or acres of land so it really can be accessible to everyone.
My goal between now and when I die—I started gardening when I was 14—is to create a food-secure Phoenix. That means we can grow enough food here in Phoenix to feed Phoenix. If everyone grew food and shared with 10 people, that could do it. And if you grow and share produce—that makes you an urban farmer; it’s as easy as that!