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Greener Pastures

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Juicy peaches. Garden dinner parties. Weekend festivals. One family-owned farm is staying current by being true to its Arizona roots

By Celeste Sepessy

For seven decades and three generations, Schnepf Farms has been a family affair.
For seven decades and three generations, Schnepf Farms has been a family affair. Photo by Julie Foskett.

In 1941, Ray and Thora Schnepf spent their honeymoon night in a one-room shack. With their farmhand.

They’d spend the next three years clearing the desert brush from their plot of land just 20 miles southeast of Mesa, Arizona. And during the next seven decades, it would transform into the state’s most well-loved family farm.

Schnepf Farms, and the Schnepf family, are Queen Creek institutions. In fact, the 300-acre farm may be the biggest attraction in the small town (population 32,000). Hundreds of thousands of visitors — both from Phoenix and across the country — make the trek to Schnepf Farms every year for the chance to pick their own organic fruits and vegetables. It’s an experience most have never had, and demand is growing as local produce is top of mind for many consumers.

“We’ve been the only stewards of this land. We know what goes into it, and we know what comes out,” says Carrie Schnepf says, whose husband, Mark, is Ray and Thora’s son. The Schnepfs are continuing a farming tradition 100 years in the making.

Originally from Mesa, the Schnepf family expanded to Queen Creek where the acreage was plenty and the soil was fertile. At its peak in the 1970s, the farm stretched for 5,000 acres of commercial crops like cotton, potatoes and corn. And it wasn’t alone; similar farms covered much of the greater Phoenix area.

Now, as Carrie describes, every other local farm is gone to make way for shopping centers or housing developments. Some are even named after the farms of generations past, like what Carrie jokingly calls “Hastings Farm … full of houses.”

But the Schnepfs, and their farm, changed with the times. Instead of commercial crops, the agritourism farm focuses solely on the public, Mark explains. Think huge weekend festivals, garden dinners, rides and countless animals. But the main draw, of course, is its organic “U-pick” produce like kale, artichokes, apricots and peaches.

“People who come to the farm get to taste things they’ve never tasted before,” says Mark, who served as Queen Creek’s first mayor. “To bite into a peach off the tree and have it explode, with the juices running down your arm — that’s an experience. You can’t get that at a grocery store.”

Peaches are undeniably the farm’s pride and joy. And they’re an Arizona favorite, too; nearly 50,000 people visit Schnepf Farms for its annual peach festival (to be held on May 14-15 and 21-22 this year).

There, you’ll find six different peach varieties, spanning 40 acres — plus peach- and pie-eating competitions, daily pancake breakfasts, peach pit spits and countless peachy foods, like Carrie’s grandmother’s peach cinnamon rolls.

While Schnepf Farms has certainly evolved, it seems staying true to its roots has been just what Arizona has needed. “I don’t think we’ll ever really change,” Carrie says. “You need that foundation, those roots. You need to be able to fill that soil. You can only take so many cement walls.”

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