The Fertile Desert: A fruitful foray into Arizona's Sonoran Desert

We venture along the fringes of Arizona’s Sonoran desert to discover arid landscapes, farms and orchards bearing an unexpectedly diverse array of crops.

Of all the cacti in the Sonoran desert, there’s one in particular I’m keeping my distance from.

Not that an accidental encounter with any spiky species would be welcome (plucking cacti spines from one’s skin is a rite of passage for any Arizonan, I’m told), but I was given warning about one particularly menacing cactus called the cholla.

Its nickname – the jumping cactus – is indicative of the action that ensues when you so much as brush up against this menacing succulent. Somewhat like the persistent latchings of dried burrs (but with much more pain and, well, blood), a dill pickle-sized portion of the cholla will detach itself and cling onto your clothing and/or flesh.

So it’s to my surprise that our desert guide in a particularly arid but picturesque portion of the Sonoran, northwest of Phoenix, tells us that native populations of the desert have used the cholla as a source of food.

To demonstrate this, Cowboy Don, as he prefers to be called, wrangles a segment of the cholla. It’s skewered at the edge of a pocket knife which he’s grasping by a construction-gloved hand.

The key to taming the cholla lies in many of your pockets. With a small lighter, Don sets the cactus segment on fire, the flames spreading quickly as the spikes curl under the heat and wither away.

Once the fire dies, Don slices the cholla in half lengthwise and carves out small segments of cactus flesh for us to taste. It’s incredibly slimy and juicier that I would have thought, with a hue of a cucumber that’s had its skin just barely peeled, and a firmer texture.

It shouldn’t come to a surprise how juicy the cholla flesh is as the Sonoran is one of the wettest deserts on the globe. The succulent is particularly adept at retaining every raindrop that saturates the vicinity of its roots. But thankfully, there’s tastier vegetation growing along the fringes of the Sonoran, as I discover during my time in Arizona.

It didn’t take much of a trek to stumble across one of the characteristic food exports of the region. On a leisurely run in the residential neighbourhood around my accommodations in Mesa, a suburb just northeast of Phoenix, my usual jogging pace slowed considerably as I’m distracted by the vegetation growing on people's’ front lawns (while also trying not to trip over myself).

It shouldn’t come to a surprise how juicy the cholla flesh is as the Sonoran is one of the wettest deserts on the globe.

It takes all my self-restraint not to reach over a fence or property line and pluck a juicy orange – yes, orange – off of the trees that proliferate among the homes of local Arizonans. I might expect to spot citrus casually growing in Florida or California but I’m surprised to see them here. I’m visiting at the peak of the citrus harvest so these oranges are at their orangest, ripe and ready for picking.

Arizona is, in fact, a major citrus grower and used to be Sunkist’s largest during the 1950s and 60s. The state’s largest and oldest orchard (and a former Sunkist partner) is now part of a family-run farm – B&B Citrus. It supplies citrus to local grocers and restaurants but it attracts sizeable foot traffic from visitors and Arizonans that seek out B&B’s sweet citrus offerings.

While I may be influenced or charmed from the story I’ve just heard, I’m convinced that the sample slice of navel orange I try is the tastiest slice of orange I’ve had in recent memory. It’s fresh, juicy and sweet. Logic and reasoning surrounding the amount of citrus I’m able to consume during a five-day vacation evades me as I fill a bag full of oranges (navel, minneola) and grapefruits in assurance that I can extend this indulgence in the state’s unofficial fruit as long as possible.

Another unexpected crop appears as I venture south along the outskirts of Mesa and into Gilbert, where 7,500 olive trees sprawled out over 120 acres are grown and milled on-site. The legacy of Queen Creek Olive Mill isn’t as long – the Rea family moved here in 1997 from Detroit (the family partly grew up in London, Ontario) – but they’ve managed to make a significant impact on the community. They produce Arizona’s only 100 per cent extra virgin olive oil from over a dozen different olive varieties originating from Greece, Italy, Spain and California. Unlike many of these regions, the warmer winter season in Arizona helps extend the growing season of the olives.

Their gift shop is bustling with a non-stop flow of customers when we visit, as well as its café and bisto which incorporates the green liquid into any element of its menu that it can, including a decadent array of cupcakes.

But the best way to taste and experience olive oil is to taste the unadultered stuff, which Queen Creek makes plenty of. Their “robust” oil ,made from early harvest olives still green from the vine, results in a bold and peppery oil while their “delicate” oil that uses olives left to ripen in the sun for a smooth and nutty flavour.

Olive harvest runs from October to November, which I unfortunately miss during my mid-winter visit but it’s easy to envision the chaos that ensues in Queen Creek’s milling room once the olives are ready for picking. Their robust oil is best pressed fresh off the tree so their milling machine, imported from Turkey, runs 24-7 during peak harvest season. The demand is so high for Arizona olive oil that they source crops from nearby farmers to meet their production needs.

But further south in Gilbert, I discover that not all of the farms in the region have stuck to traditional growing practices. One of the most unique operations I visited has its humble beginnings as a hay farm (fun fact: Gilbert, Arizona was once known as the Hay Capital of the World). Joe Johnson’s parents bought the property in 1960 and when he took over the farm in the 2000s, Johnson transformed the property into a new-age planned community with 452 residential plots built with low fences and shared spaces to encourage communication between neighbours. The concept, called Agritopia, is equal parts impressive and dystopian in its execution.

The demand is so high for Arizona olive oil that they source crops from nearby farmers to meet their production needs.

But one element of Agritopia that feels a little more familiar, at least to us city-dwelling Torontonians, is a facility called Barnone that is set up in a former grain storage structure. They’ve welcomed ten local entrepreneurs to operate small businesses in the facility. An independent hairdresser sits across from a greeting card maker while a meeting space at the end of the structure hosts workshops and meetings. Diagrams above a work table detail line drawings of a deli slicer and the KitchenAid Mixer – appliances which Johnson’s great grandfather Herbert, an engineer, invented in the early 1900s.

The collaboration and fluidity between them is most evident among its food and drink operations – 12 West Brewing, a pizzeria called Fire and Brimstone and a winery in an adjacent garage. With seating at the the pizzeria limited, we opted for a seat at the winery, called Garage East. The pizzeria staff had no qualms with walking our pies over to us when ready as it must be a common request.

Once a colourful starter salad, replete with shaved heirloom carrots, beets, radishes and fennel lands on our table, our server at the winery can’t help but gush about it being his favourite on the menu, boasting about how all the vegetables in the dish are grown in Agritopia. Toronto’s harvest season is fleeting, reaching its peak for a few short months in late summer. But in Arizona, it seems like there’s always something in season.

During our last evening, the experience comes full circle as we’re back in the desert, en route to a “super secret desert location”. We wait in the parking lot of a small airport (specializing in hang glider flights, nonetheless) for our dinner guide to escort us to our destination. It requires venturing off the main road onto a side street, and off the side street into the desert proper.

Among the splendor of cacti and the unique landscape of the southwest, a long table is set up with a rustic cart serving Tom Collins to guests who have already arrived for the meal. The evening is strategically timed. As we’re finishing our first course – a colourful salad of tomatoes, radishes and beets (many of which are locally grown in the farming regions we just visited) the sun is just beginning to set. The sky, slowly turning dark, glows in a similarly impressive array of colours to rival our dish.

As daylight escapes us, fairy lights strung overhead the dinner table come to life, as does the conversation with our 30-plus dinner table, thanks to the cocktails and glasses of Arizonian wine (from Agritopia’s Garage East, nonetheless) we’ve since guzzled.

In the middle of dessert (in the middle of the desert), the music and lights turn off abruptly and for a moment I worry that the generator powering our off-the-grid experience may have died. But our dinner organizer quickly reveals that the power was cut on purpose in order to draw our attention to the rising moon that’s above the horizon, glowing in a bright orange hue and looking larger than life.

An incredible blanket of lights has illuminated the night sky and just for a moment, I forget about the potentially hazardous cacti that surround me. I deem it wise to remain in my seat until the power comes back on.