While their geographical settings are classified as desert, Arizona and New Mexico are anything but food deserts. These Southwestern states produce bumper crops of agricultural products that encompass pecans, citrus fruits, chile peppers, wine grapes, olive oil and much more. They are also known for distinctive cuisine, drawing on multicultural influences that reflect Native American and Hispanic heritage as well as the latest food trends. Fortunately for groups, there is no end to the venues and activities that showcase the region’s cornucopia of flavors, agriculture and culinary traditions.
When anyone asks what can possibly grow in the Arizona desert, the likely answer is just about everything. For many out-of-town visitors, the scope of what the state produces is often a huge surprise.
“People don’t realize how many farms there are in Arizona, even right in the Greater Phoenix area,” said Lori James, president and owner of AZA Events, a destination management company serving all of Arizona. “For instance, we’re one of the world’s largest producers of lettuce and honey—things people would never imagine.”
For meeting groups, there is no shortage of farms that offer event space, tours and other opportunities to enjoy what they produce. Among the most popular is Queen Creek Olive Mill, where Perry and Brenda Rea produce extra virgin olive oil at their 100-acre spread planted with over 7,000 olive trees. Located about 40 miles south of Phoenix and 94 miles north of Tucson, Queen Creek welcomes groups with a variety of events and activities that include tours, olive oil tastings and pizza-making classes.
“Once you see how olive oil is processed, you come away with a new appreciation for the differences in quality,” James said. “This is a really great place for events.”
Queen Creek offers several indoor and outdoor event venues, including the chance to enjoy a catered lunch or dinner in the olive groves or in the mill room where the olives are pressed into oil and bottled.
Another of James’s favorite venues is the Farm at South Mountain, which welcomes groups of up to 3,000 to its 10-acre expanse of pecan groves, vegetable gardens and parklands. The options range from casual picnics to elegant cocktail parties with food stations. Groups can hold outdoor events in areas such as Stone Grove, which includes a wood-burning oven amid handcrafted stone walls. The property also hosts private dinners at its fine-dining restaurant, Quiessence, where dishes are created from produce grown on the property or from nearby farms.
In October Tucson became the first American city to become part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network and the only one to be selected because of culinary innovation and commitment to preserving the gastronomical heritage of Southern Arizona.
“Our agricultural heritage extends back over 4,000 years as the longest known continuously cultivated area in North America,” said Dan Gibson, spokesman for Visit Tucson. “We also have an incredibly unique mix of cultural influences reflected in our food.”
According to Gibson, UNESCO took note of the research on sustainable growing practices conducted by the University of Arizona and the work done on preserving historic crops by Native Seeds, a local organization.
Among places in Tucson where visitors can see this preservation in action is Mission Garden, a living agricultural museum where the grounds are planted with heirloom orchards and vegetable gardens. Interpretive tours of Mission Garden, which is planted in the style of a Spanish walled colonial garden on a site once farmed by the ancient Hohokam and Tohono O’odham tribes, can be arranged for groups.