Ripe for the pickin' - Tucson Local Media: El Sol

Ripe for the pickin'

A 30-year project in organic farming pays off

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Posted: Tuesday, May 20, 2008 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:02 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

When they say “straight off the vine,” the folks at Our Garden mean it.

At this Catalina fresh food stop, an empty spinach bin doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of luck in the leafy greens department. More likely, it means a gardener would be happy to tromp out to the spinach patch and pull some more.

That’s status quo, said Jenny Petty, who owns the garden with her husband, Wayne.

“We don’t want to harvest more than we need and have it wilt,” she said.

Our Garden attracts about 50 customers a week with its vibrant produce — grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides — and its chicken eggs that come in white, brown, black-and-white speckled and green.

The bucolic enterprise is a dream come true for the Petty family, and bigger dreams are on the horizon. Jesse, the son, plans to take over the farm and earn an entire living from selling its bounty.

Organics are hot, these days, so he’ll probably succeed. But living that dream wasn’t always within the realm of possibility, Jenny Petty said.

Wayne Petty started the garden in the 1970s as a hobby. He wanted to till the land for a living, but his mentors in the agricultural department at University of Arizona told him he’d be better off selling fertilizer. So he did, and he used the proceeds to create a garden that didn’t use any. He wanted to see if the organic concept would sell.

In the early 1980s, the Petty family spent hot summer afternoons on the side of Highway 77 selling seedless watermelon, which, at the time, wasn’t widely available in corner grocery stores.

That may seem dangerous now, but at the time, the road didn’t get much traffic, and even the highway patrol stopped to try the intriguing fruit.

“People would stop and say, ‘Seedless watermelons?’” Jenny Petty said.

The early years proved short on profits, but they at least offered the Petty children some spending money. At age 8 and 10, the kids harvested asparagus at $1 an hour. Because they worked slowly, they made more than their parents made selling the vegetable.

As time went by, the family found new ways to market its wares. For a period, the Pettys sold their produce through the small company “Virgin Vegetables and Forbidden Fruits,” which took it to farmers markets.

In the mid-1990s, as word of mouth spread, the Pettys found they could sell vegetables straight from their home with the aid of cardboard signs along the road. With country charm, they offered customers unusual bargains. One especially good one arose when their cat had babies.

“You could buy a dozen ears of corn and get your own kitten,” Jenny Petty said.

A U-pick period also added charm to food buying, though it thoroughly stressed out the Pettys.

 “It was terrifying,” Jenny Petty said. “These are your customers and you’ve got to be polite, so how many times can you tell someone ‘Don’t step on the plants?’”

In 2006, Our Garden found it no longer needed charming gimmicks. As the organic foods concept entered the public consciousness, business picked up. Sales in 2007 doubled over the 2006. And 2008 sales rose another 50 percent.

For the first time, the Pettys have started running out of produce and making adjustments in their own eating habits to put their customers first.

 “I find myself having to go out and buy vegetables,” Jenny Petty said.

Our Garden plans to bump its acreage for vegetables up 50 percent, from one acre to one and a half, for next year. The whole farm comprises seven cultivated acres. It has a U-pick grape orchard, and in late September, customers help harvest and husk pistachios and in return take home all they want.

And one of these days, Jesse will do what his parents would have liked to do all along — devote his life to organic gardening.

“Being born at the right time, he’ll be able to make a living from it,” Jenny Petty said.

In other words, it’s harvest time.

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