It was 1972. The year that “American Pie” spent four weeks at No. 1, Kodak introduced the Pocket Instamatic, and a U.S. gallon of gas cost 36 cents. Philip Ostrom, age 7 and defying a strict rule not to leave the yard, crossed a busy street, headed to the local hardware store, and got permission to pick up and take home whatever bulk seeds fell on the floor. Three months later, his Radio Flyer wagon piled high with his harvest of rutabagas, turnips, okra, and collards, Ostrom made his way around his Chapel Hill, North Carolina, neighborhood selling veggies door to door. It was his first foray into growing since toddling in his grandfather’s garden, his first pass at nourishing a community, and it stuck.
Forty-two years later, on one of Baja Arizona’s too-good-to-be-true November mornings, Ostrom shows me around the grown-up version of that little, red wagon. Patagonia Orchards is headquartered in Rio Rico, where Ostrom, his wife, Sherry Luna, and their staff of 15 clean, pack, and ship more than 10 million pounds of produce a year. The foods travel to them south from Maricopa and north from as far away as the Yucatán Peninsula, a span of some 2,300 miles: pineapples from Oaxaca, limes from Veracruz, mangoes and hard squash from Sinaloa, plus plenty of Arizona edibles: apples, peaches and pears from Willcox, oranges from Gilbert, row vegetables from Tolleson—the list goes on and gets bigger every year.The vegetables are brought to a hulking beast of a machine that Ostrom and Luna cobbled together years ago with parts scavenged from other packing operations, customized to grab both the giant plastic bins used for produce grown stateside as well as the massive cardboard crates used in Mexico (new machines handle one or the other but not both). Belts turn to bathe grapefruits and lemons, give them a quick spray of natural wax to seal in freshness, sanitize them under infrared light, and then separate them into batches to be shipped across Arizona, to a handful of other states, and as far north as Canada.
Simply calling a Patagonia Orchards zucchini or bell pepper organic is like saying Aretha Franklin can sing. “The certification isn’t set up so that you have a nutritionally outstanding fruit or vegetable when the crop’s finally harvested,” Ostrom says. “That’s up to the grower. A lot of people fall down on the minerals because they’re not going to always have a flavor dividend. It’s more a question of, are you willing to invest in the soil so the consumer has something that they may not even taste but that their body’s going to know as a different level of nutrition?” For Ostrom and his partners, the answer is a no-hesitation “Yes.” Because what he’s really always cultivated are relationships with like-minded people passionate about foods, places, and all the living things that call them home.
“If you had 90 days to travel around and meet our farmers,” he tells me, “what I think you’d see is just a real excitement and enthusiasm for working in an ecosystem that’s balanced—where they can feel good that they’re seeing healthier and healthier systems supporting their organizations year after year, including the wildlife systems that coexist with them.”
Ostrom and the farmers he partners with see the fields they till as part of, not separate from, the lands and waters around them. It’s one reason Patagonia Orchards supports groups like Pronatura Noroeste, a regional chapter of Mexico’s National Pronatura System, which is working to reduce chemical runoff around Huatabampo’s agricultural operations on the southern end of Sonora. Note that “support” in this instance doesn’t mean just sending off a periodic check.
Ostrom and Luna describe trips to the region to learn about the cultures of those communities, sometimes bringing as many as 40 staff members, spouses, and kids (including the couple’s own, Kali and Rowan). “We did kayak tours into the estuaries so they could see the difference in the health of the mangroves. It enlightens everyone on our staff about what it takes to grow organically and the people it takes to make that happen.”
Enlightenment is another crop that Patagonia Orchards sows. They educate farmers about effective microorganism (“EM”) technology as an alternative to pesticides and herbicides. They help growers implement better food safety practices and turn them onto environmentally friendly cleaners. They help them plan their crops, forecasting what foods will be in high demand but also nurture the land. All these changes can be scary for small and vulnerable operations, but Patagonia Orchards also puts its money where its mouth is, underwriting the evolution of their partners, paying for harvests in advance, and sharing the profits when they come.
That holistic investment is what makes Patagonia Orchards an exemplar of how food systems can and should work, but when asked—no, badgered—about where that social consciousness comes from, Ostrom and Luna all but shrug it off. “It’s always just been part of what we do,” Luna says. “The people that we’ve partnered with and worked with—we’ve always paid them better wages, we’ve given them vacations—even when we had our sprout company, we paid better than minimum wage.”
More on that sprout company in a minute. First, a little more about what’s behind that Patagonia Orchards label, beyond higher wages. Employees get an arm-long list of benefits ranging from healthcare insurance and coverage for naturopathic care to retirement programs, year-round work with lots of time off (both rarities in their world), free massages, and profit-sharing. Dianna Rodriguez, accounting coordinator and grower liaison, and Sherrie Yanez, sales manager, both industry veterans, described working at Patagonia as like a second home and a world apart from working in conventional produce. Alberto Romero, Patagonia Orchards’ operations and food safety manager, came to work with the company when an employee described Ostrom as the best boss he’d ever had.
As for that sprout company? It was the couple’s answer to the question: “What do you do when you’re moving to California but break down in Prescott, Arizona, and don’t have money for repairs?” Find a place to spend the winter and turn your RV into a greenhouse, of course. That was in the ’80s, when sprouts were kind of a big deal and Ostrom and Luna were in their 20s. Arizona became their oyster. They bought “old, cantankerous” trucks. They bonded with people who raised chickens and milked goats and baked organic bread. Then they drove all around the state to pick up those goods, deliver them to equally starry-eyed dreamers with tiny retail operations, a kind of wholesale farmers’ market roadshow before the USDA even had an “organic” designation.
Simply calling a Patagonia Orchards zucchini or bell pepper organic is like saying Aretha Franklin can sing.
Those were hard years of 24-hour days and many an engine burnt up on the inclines of Black Canyon Highway, an eking by that would have driven most to put away their milk crates and shoehorn themselves into cozy desk jobs. Not Ostrom and Luna. In fact, in a way, Patagonia Orchards is gearing up to return to those roots. The company is launching another delivery service—this time to chefs and restaurants in Tucson and Phoenix to bring them organic, Arizona-grown and wild-crafted foods from nuts to nopales.
In 2015, they’ll begin supplying grocers with grass-finished beef from Arizona and sustainable seafood from the Sea of Cortez, and they’ve just introduced Arizona-grown, slow-pressed apple cider, Sonoran-grown unsweetened limeade, and a handful of other, all-natural juices pasteurized with UV to preserve their living enzymes. Of course, the UV process is slower than heat and the equipment costs more, but that investment isn’t surprising. After all, this is the guy who wanted to raise all-natural hogs but couldn’t find feed grown without pesticides and so grew his own, but still—20 plus years of one learning curve after another?
“I think it’s just a passion for foods—that and finding ways to nourish others,” says Ostrom, handing me a small, firm apple. It’s a Sundowner, pink in places, still almost green in others. It’s a variety Ostrom selected for me when I described what I love in an apple, and his choice is spot on: crisp and sweet but not too sugary, crunchy with a good amount of acid. I have another on the drive home and some tangy, salty Patagonia Orchards kale chips. In the back seat is a big box of lemons and limes, grapefruit, squash, peppers, ginger, and lots and lots of apples. I feel nourished. He’s done it again. ✜
Patagonia Orchards. 4 Ojo Court, Rio Rico. 520.671.8970.
Eric Van Meter loves good food, good people, and a good, hard rain. He’s called Tucson home all his 44 years.