It’s a warm afternoon in late summer and Erik Stanford is cruising the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market. Mercifully shaded from the raging western sun by the sprawling El Mercado complex, the outdoor market is awash in hot-weather veggies in a rainbow of colors.
But it’s an array of cherry tomatoes that gets Stanford’s attention.
“These are beautiful,” he exclaims.
He’s right. The plump little veggies, most of them round and red, are interspersed with the occasional yellow specimen and even an elongated orange variety. They glisten like jewels in their humble cardboard box.
Farmer Bill Stern beams. He’s grown the little beauties down in Arivaca, a lush ranching community near the border, 63 miles southwest of Tucson. Known in recent years for its No More Deaths camp and an influx of Border Patrol agents, Arivaca has also been reviving its old-time farming traditions.
“There were hardly any growers in Arivaca 10 years ago,” Stern says. Now there are.
“I come up once a week to sell my vegetables,” he explains, all of them grown at the Arivaca Community Garden, a farm he manages for the nonprofit Project PPEP. Stern and his co-workers harvest on Wednesdays with the market in mind, and on Thursdays he makes the trip up I-19 to the market. This week he toted not only those tomatoes, but also garlic, onions, peppers, summer squash, and eggplant.
But Stanford mostly has eyes for those tomatoes. He writes Stern a check for $135—45 pounds at $3 a pound—and hefts three boxes’ worth onto a dolly, a low-rider pushcart that’s perfect for moving produce.
It’s not that Stanford can eat that many tomatoes in a week. He’s a middleman, as Arizona Illustrated called him, the sole proprietor of Pivot Produce, a one-man enterprise that brings local foods from local farms to local tables in Tucson restaurants.
The Pivot Produce slogan, as his website puts it, is “bridging the gap between local farmers and chefs since 2016.”
“I’m dispelling the myth that nothing grows here in the desert,” Stanford says cheerfully. On any given Friday, the day he distributes to his restaurant customers, “I have 40 different items.”
Stanford works with about 16 small-scale southern Arizona farms, from Arivaca to Arivaipa, and from Patagonia to tiny Cochise, south of Willcox.
There are even a couple of urban Tucson farms on his list, including Dreamflower Garden, a one-acre spread tucked away in midtown near Country Club and Grant, and Rattlebox Farm, four and a half acres on the banks of the Pantano Wash.
“None of them are corporate farms,” he says. “Nobody is bigger than five acres.” All of them farm organically, he notes, even though most of them can’t afford to pay the federal government for the official organic seal of approval.
Every Thursday, Stanford buys freshly picked produce from these farmers and then turns around and rapidly re-sells it on Friday to a dozen or so mostly downtown restaurants that cater to locavore customers. Tomatoes picked on Wednesday can land on dinner plates by Friday evening.
His biggest buyers are the high-volume 5 Points Market & Restaurant; the year-old Welcome Diner; and the Cup Café in Hotel Congress. Yet he also services smaller outlets, like the food truck Geronimo’s Revenge and Exo Roast Co.
Some of his suppliers, like Avalon Farms in Tubac and Forever Yong in Amado, deliver their wares directly to Stanford, but he buys the bulk of his produce at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market. The market keeps him from making too many long drives out to the farms.
“I can stay in downtown Tucson where all my restaurants are,” Stanford says. “And it’s a place for me to meet farmers.”
After stocking up on Bill Stern’s wares, Stanford visits half a dozen or more booths, pivoting between shoppers on the crowded walkway. He chit-chats with farmers, writes checks, and loads his trusty dolly up with peppers and garlic and oddly striped eggplants Every so often, when the dolly is groaning under the weight, he wheels it out to the market’s parking lot and hoists the boxes of produce into his old bomber station wagon, a 1986 Chevrolet Celebrity that looks like it won’t make it over the Santa Cruz back to town, let alone to Arivaca.
He heads to the table of Lorien Tersey of Dreamflower, where he reels in her specialty chives and nopales—prickly pear pads—for the popular nopal tacos at Exo. “It’s a topnotch backyard farm, an incredible operation,” Stanford tells me, as I tag along on his rounds.
Today Tersey is touting her Asian eggplant. It’s skinny and “not bitter,” she promises. “You cut it up in a stir-fry. You don’t have to salt it.”
Across the way from Dreamflower, the San Xavier Co-Op Farm is selling chiles that Stanford covets. The farm, nestled between I-19 and Mission San Xavier del Bac, lies within the Tohono O’odham Nation and hires tribal members. The stand has various prepared foods—mesquite flour, saguaro syrup—but by law Stanford deals only in raw produce.
“I don’t sell any prepared food,” he explains. “It’s not legal for me. I’m just moving raw product from one person to another.”
But he jumps at the chiles and buys 10 pounds. “If I could get 40 pounds, I would,” he says. “I could sell them. There aren’t too many this year.”
At the booth for Maggie’s Farm, a Marana spread named for a Bob Dylan tune, Stanford springs for peppers—yellow, orange, red and, surprisingly, purple—along with those mysterious purple and white eggplants. From Sleeping Frog Farms, based in Cascabel, he buys watermelon graced with a rare and tasty yellow fruit, destined to be served up at Welcome Diner.
At High Energy Agriculture, also in Marana, Stanford is warmly greeted by Anne Loftfield, a lively white-haired farmer who works on acreage belonging to her son, Greg McGoffin.
“It’s virgin land,” she boasts, “never farmed before. We’re beyond organic. We grow the soil. We do crop rotation. We’re going to the old-fashioned ways with new techniques. We’re getting beautiful soil.”
Loftfield says High Energy Agriculture has been getting gorgeous peppers this year, along with garlic and tomatoes. The grasshoppers that have plagued many other tomato farmers have not triumphed at their place: “We tried to make peace with them,” she says, and laughs.
Like all the farmers on Stanford’s route, she’s delighted that he has helped High Energy Agriculture expand its customer base. “We’re all pulling for him,” she tells me. “He’s part of the puzzle.”
Early on a Monday morning, Stanford is sailing south on I-19 in a big blue minivan borrowed from his partner, Brittany Katter. The Mom van is a more comfortable ride than the station wagon, he says, and at an hour and 15 minutes each way, this is going to be a long trip. He’s headed to a couple of Arivaca farms, including the one run by Bill Stern.
Stanford, who just turned 30, tries to devote Monday mornings to visiting new farms on his list, even though, in theory, Monday is his day off. Pivot Produce is breaking even after a year, but Stanford still doesn’t take a salary. So he works four days a week at restaurants part-time to keep himself afloat. At 5 Points Market & Restaurant, he’s the chef for the Sunday brunch, and at Exo, he’s a chef and menu consultant. Between the four days he puts in at restaurants weekly, and the “four or more days” he says he’s on the job at Pivot, he easily works the proverbial eight days a week.
When he started Pivot Produce, he didn’t have much trouble lining up chefs as customers. He saves them a lot of time—to source local produce they can make one call to him, instead of to a dozen different farmers. And he already knew many of them from his half-dozen years of working in Tucson restaurants. The farmers were a harder sell.
“The farmers were really skeptical at first,” he says. “It took some time to win them over. A lot of trust needed to be built.”
He volunteered on a few farms, and slowly farmers began to see how he could benefit them, especially when he began writing them reliable weekly checks. And he’s got farming in his family’s not-too-distant past.
Stanford grew up in a town called Fall Creek in northwest Wisconsin, but his grandparents had a dairy farm nearby. “I spent a lot of time there but I wasn’t really a farm kid,” he says. “I could be found in the hay loft reading books. I was a city kid coming to play with my cousins.”
As boy, he didn’t think about going into the family business—his brother now works with their uncle at the farm—but “at 14 I wanted a job as soon as I could get one,” he says. And a job in a tavern was what was available. He labored as a dishwasher, then a line worker, and then food preparer. After a couple of stabs at college he moved to New Orleans at 19, a year after Katrina hit. He ended up running a Habitat for Humanity kitchen.
“I did the dinners for volunteers and for people in need. I fed 100 to 1,000 people a night. I kind of started to actually enjoy cooking. New Orleans got me inspired about food.”
Moving to Tucson in 2010, he worked the breakfast line at the Cup Café for three years, then moved over to 5 Points Market.
He learned a lot, he says, from 5 Points’ practice of sourcing foods from nearby farms. “Working there shows me the way it works,” he says, “It was a catalyst for me.” It helped him conceive of a business that would help other restaurants do the same thing, and at the same time bolster local agriculture. And in its own way, Pivot Produce brings him back to the land.
At the far end of the winding road to Arivaca, Stanford turns south onto rutted Ruby Road and bounces the van down to the picturesque farm gate. It’s Stanford’s first visit and Bill Stern comes out to greet us with a big smile. It’s a pretty place, with four acres sweeping out from a hill, plants growing in a mix of greenhouses and outdoor beds.
The place produces turnips, okra, bell peppers, and squash. Long, skinny cayenne peppers, Stern says, yield a ground pepper whose flavor is “awesome.” There’s no single best seller, Stern says. “As a market farm, it’s all about variety.”
Still, David Keller, a worker who’s come out to join the tour, says, “tomatoes take up most of my time.”
The luxuriant cherry tomatoes—just like the ones we saw at the farmers’ market—are thriving in the greenhouse, hanging from tall vines like beads on necklace. “We don’t want to plant tomatoes outdoors because of the grasshoppers,” Stern explains. “We put them in the screened greenhouse. We used to have them all outside.”
“I’ve heard it’s a bad year for grasshoppers,” Stanford says. It’s more than bad, Keller puts in. “This year is a plague cycle,” he says. “We’re four inches behind in rainfall and the insects are coming out of the hills.”
And in fact the grasshoppers are jumping around outside by the dozens, by the hundreds maybe, hopping a foot high in between shrubs, their wings making a rustling sound. The leaves on the okra plants have been “shredded,” Stern says, but “they don’t eat the vegetable.”
Luckily, the prize tomatoes are doing fine in the greenhouse, babied along by a swamp cooler that keeps the temperature below 90 degrees.
“Between you and the market,” Stern tells Stanford appreciatively, “I sell all those tomatoes.”
It’s Friday, game day for Stanford. Boxes and boxes of veggies are stacked high in a borrowed backyard guesthouse in the Iron Horse neighborhood. Space has been a problem: Pivot Produce needs something bigger, but so far middle-man Stanford hasn’t found what he needs at a price he can pay. He had a multioccupancy deal going in in a large building south of Five Points, but a developer bought the property and all the small businesses were exiled. For now, the cramped guesthouse has to do.
All else is good though. Helen the hen is walking around outside, clucking contentedly while Stanford works the phone, making calls, answering texts, checking messages on Facebook, making last-minute deals like a Wall Street broker. Someone’s cancelled a tomato order, somebody else unexpectedly wants sweet potatoes.
“I took photos of some peppers I had and sent it to the chef at Ermanos on Fourth Avenue,” Stanford says. “He said, `They look great. Bring them over.’”
Through all the electronic tumult, Stanford remains calm, methodically grouping the boxes by the restaurants they’ll go to. When all is ready, an hour of hard labor begins. Stanford hoists dozens of 50-pound boxes of veggies and 50-pound sacks of dried pinto beans, balancing them on his shoulder one at a time as he makes the long walk through the yard to the minivan parked by the curb, the station wagon having permanently given up the ghost.
Packed with veggies, the van smells good. Bill Stern’s Arivaca cherry tomatoes are en route to 5 Points, Welcome Diner, Reilly Craft Pizza, and Ermanos. At 5 Points, where the tomatoes will grace every salad, Stanford unloads six boxes, containing not only the tomatoes, but also Tohono O’odham squash, and a bag of pinto beans, destined for the eatery’s popular huevos rancheros.
Co-owner Brian Haskins says Pivot Produce is a big help to the restaurant in sourcing foods from small farmers. “We try to keep it local,” he says. “It makes it a lot easier for us and it’s important for the farmers. This is a good thing for Tucson.”
On Sixth Avenue, Stanford pulls the van to a stop at Exo, and carries in sweet potatoes, chiles, and squash. A huge batch of basil elicits joy from a staffer working in the kitchen. “We desperately needed basil,” Rusty Ramirez says, clasping hands over chest in a thank-you prayer. And Ramirez is delighted to get Dreamflower’s nopales, noting, “Our nopal tacos are already gone.”
If Haskins is appreciative and Rusty is joyful, Jeronimo “Mo” Madril, owner and chef of Geronimo’s Revenge food truck, is downright ecstatic to get Stanford’s wares. Stanford has brought him cherry tomatoes, butternut squash, chiles, and bell peppers to his commissary behind Fourth Avenue.
Madril takes a huge chef’s knife, slices off a piece of a San Xavier chile, and takes a taste. He laughs out loud. ✜
“Man,” he says, “that’s delicious.”
Pivot Produce. 520.261.8310. PivotProduce.com.
Tucson journalist Margaret Regan is the author of two books on immigration, Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire, and The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands, both from Beacon Press.