For years, Larry Park has lived with a medical condition. It wakes him up early in the morning, and recently, he retired from the landscaping job he held for years to better address his needs.
That condition? Farming.
“It’s a disease,” Larry said flatly. “It just doesn’t get out of your blood.”
Larry and his wife, Eunice, are the growers behind Larry’s Veggies, a mainstay at farmers’ markets in Tucson and Oro Valley.
What is now a thriving business started several years ago as a backyard garden in a rural section of Marana.
Larry’s green thumb meant that they had an overabundance of squash and other vegetables, but not enough neighbors to take home the extras. The question of what to do with the overflow led them to the local food bank, which they had heard accepted excess produce. Eventually, the Parks went public, piling their vegetables onto a six-foot-long table at the Oro Valley farmers’ market.
“We made $75 [that day], and we thought we were in hog heaven,” Larry says. The pair eventually became regulars at farmers’ markets across the Tucson area. “It all started,” Larry said, “as a little hobby so I’d have some money to take my wife out to dinner.”
“I’m still waiting!” Eunice responds, wryly.
The people who purchase the Parks’ offerings each weekend aren’t just customers. Eunice calls most of them family and knows their birthdays and the names of their children. “The customers are extremely supportive of you,” she said. “They thank you for growing such good produce.”
The Parks say that’s one of the joys of doing what they do: Providing produce that is not only nutritious, but delights the taste buds as well.
“Commercial farms have provided enough food to keep hunger down,” Larry said, “but we’ve lost the flavor and the nutritional value.”
Their close relationships with their customers came in handy recently when the Parks—along with dozens of other vendors—had to leave their longtime home at St. Philip’s Plaza for their new farmers’ market location at Rillito Park. Many of their customers, the Parks said, made the transition with them. Eunice is the public relations arm of the business, although she makes sure Larry comes along to each farmers’ market.
“He’d rather play in the dirt,” she said. “But people want to talk to him”—to ask how something was grown, or what might come into season soon.
It wasn’t a whim that gave birth to Larry’s Veggies (“Getting fresh with your veggies,” the business cards boast).
Larry’s interest in agriculture started in his childhood in Douglas. When he was a sophomore in high school, he purchased an 80-acre plot to begin farming, paying for his purchase by driving tractors for other farms and working at his parents’ hamburger stand.
And it wasn’t as if he had been given lush, soft, ready-to-plant soil. He had to work for it, he said, wresting mesquite from the ground before he could start tilling the earth. Over time, after sinking a well on the property, he was able to entice vegetables from the plot and establish a nursery.
“Our children were raised there and helped us on the farm,” Eunice said. As they got older, their children eventually left home—and the farm. At that point, in 2001, “We said, ‘Now, what?’” Eunice recalled.
“Downsizing” is probably too tame a word for what happened next. The couple left their four-bedroom house in Douglas and moved into a 900 square-foot apartment in Tucson.
Living in an apartment didn’t ease Larry’s love affair with the green. “He tried to go cold turkey on the agriculture thing,” Eunice said. “It didn’t work.”
He populated their patio with 15-gallon buckets stuffed with soil. Because the second-floor patio lacked a water spigot or a hose, he filled smaller buckets in the bathtub, hauling them outside to irrigate his urban crops.
Finally, in 2006, the couple put down new roots, settling on an acre plot among a few other homes in the farthest northern stretches of Marana. When they moved in, the land was empty save for the home and a few palo verde and mesquite trees.
That changed quickly. Larry repurposed large tree stakes that were no longer being used by the landscape company he worked for. These he tied together vertically, augmenting and closing off gaps in the perimeter fence and—Larry says—creating a microclimate on the property by walling out the wind.
After the housing bubble burst, developers no longer needed the enormous, vivid signs designed to draw potential buyers into subdivisions that once smelled of sawdust and fresh paint. Many of those signboards found a new life as sidewalls for the 50 raised beds Larry eventually used to produce his vegetables. “Everything here is recycled,” Larry said.
Recycling isn’t the only way the couple is green. Recognizing they make their living in the middle of a vast desert, every little sprout they grow is drip irrigated. “You’re not wasting water that way,” Eunice Park said.
Many of the farm’s plants start out as “plugs,” seeds inserted into soil within small, cylindrical holes in a large piece of foam. After the seeds germinate, the plugs are transplanted into a raised bed or the open field. Each week, 3,000 to 4,000 of these plugs are put in the ground.
Now that Larry is retired—at least from his old job—they’re expanding production, and have leased five acres of land nearby.
Lack of diversity is not an issue with this farm; fig and pomegranate trees will soon displace packed soil. Larry also intends to try out a lineup of vine treats, including blueberries, boysenberries, strawberries, and grapes.
The Parks offer a healthy variety of produce for their customers, but they admit it’s not easy. “People will see your onions and other produce and think, ‘You’re making a fortune doing this,’” Larry said. “Then they try it, and it’s not [easy]. You’re going to lose a crop or two.”
To the east and west of the Parks’ new fields, cotton and alfalfa sprout encouragingly, but the five acres the Parks leased have lain fallow for about a dozen years. Beets, sweet potatoes, spinach, celery and watermelon already populate parts of the plot, but the high piles of horse manure at the site—along with the withering watermelon vines just waiting to be ploughed under—will soon add more of the organic matter that Larry says it needs to flourish. Already 150 tons of manure and other organic matter has been added, but Larry won’t be happy until he gets an abundance of his favorite tenants: earthworms.
It’s hard work, but Larry has been there before. It’s exactly the way he wants to spend his retirement.
Over the years, “We’ve had some years where we’ve made some good money and we’ve lost some good money,” Larry said. “As I get older, it’s about doing something that I love.” ✜
Larry’s Veggies. 520.250.2655. Facebook.com/LarrysVeggies.
Michael Mello is a writer who has worked for The Orange County Register and The Los Angeles Times. He is currently lost