By Wayne Schutsky
Agritopia in Gilbert has been at the forefront of the local food movement since entrepreneur Joe Johnston established the community on his family’s farmland in the town nearly two decades ago.
Now, the community – complete with its urban farm, village-inspired residential housing, and restaurants — will provide the backdrop for Local First Arizona’s Food and Farm Forum, an event that promotes the use of locally sourced foods throughout the state.
The event, now in its fifth year, is Tuesday, May 8, and Wednesday, May 9, at The Farm at Agritopia, the urban farm that sits at the center of the community. The Local First Arizona Foundation previously held the forum in Tucson, Phoenix and Clarkdale.
“We have seen from the town of Gilbert and entities like the Johnston Family Foundation a real commitment to preserve the heritage of the outskirts of Phoenix and a commitment to preserving small scale farms,” said Kate Radosevic, local foods development coordinator for Local First Arizona.
Katie Critchley, founding board member of The Johnston Family Foundation for Urban Agriculture, said Gilbert is a nice setting for the event because of the town’s rich agricultural history.
“I think Agritopia and The Johnston Family Foundation for Urban Agriculture are committed to bringing some of these agricultural problems and ideas to light, so if we can help in any way, that is our mission,” she said.
This year’s event will feature more than 40 local and national speakers and presenters discussing a range of topics related to local food production, including food distribution logistics and how to integrate fresh local foods into government assistance programs.
The forum is designed for food professionals in the public, private and nonprofit sectors who want to learn how to produce local foods or integrate more local produce into their organizations.
The target audience for the event includes food producers, distributors, chefs, SNAP-Ed professionals and youth interested in pursuing those careers.
“I think it is a good way to network, because agriculture is so spread out in Arizona,” Critchley said. “It is a good opportunity for local growers to put their heads together and solve some of their problems.”
She said those problems include finding affordable distribution methods to bring their goods throughout the state and learning more about loans and grant programs available to local growers.
The forum will also include a “speed dating” networking session so the organizations in attendance – from schools and nonprofits to farmers markets and co-ops – can learn how to work together to promote local foods.
“The Food and Farm Forum is trying to make those connections and change the way Arizona feeds itself,” Radosevic said.
The forum will also include workshops providing learning opportunities like how to secure loans and funding for small farms and how to navigate the 2018 Farm Bill.
Keynote speaker Deborah Frieze is a founding partner of the Boston Impact Initiative, an investment fund that focuses on social justice. Her address will speak to the relationship between investment and the way communities feed themselves.
“(Frieze’s talk) would be of interest to anyone in economic impact and finance or impact investment,” Radosevic said. “It is about folks coming together who have a vested interest in social and environmental outcomes and changing the market of investing to help those outcomes.”
Other presenters include Tim Colby, farmer at The Farm at Agritopia; Chris Chappell, sustainability liaison for Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.; Ashley Schimke, education program specialist at the Arizona Department of Education; and Dr. Carola Grebitus, assistant professor of food industry management in the Morrison School of Agribusiness at ASU.
The full agenda and tickets for the event, which start at $20, can be found at localfirstazfoundation.org/azfoodforum.