Originally Published: April 27, 2011 10:48 a.m.
When "Farmer Buzz" Fournier fired up the vintage John Deere tractors at the former Young's Farm this past Friday afternoon, it signaled a rebirth of the Dewey-Humboldt land that has been vacant for nearly five years.
Gary and Sharla Mortimer, owners of Mortimer Nursery and Landscape Center in Prescott and Ash Creek Ranch in Dewey, recently secured a long-term lease on the property, and with astonishing speed, have cleaned up and prepared the neglected fields for planting this spring under the name Mortimer Family Farms.
An excited group of dignitaries, including nearly the entire Dewey-Humboldt Town Council, and state Reps. Andy Tobin and Karen Fann, toured the property on Friday as the Mortimers described their dream for revitalizing the land. They gave those on the tour a taste of what they had in mind with a mock wedding at a newly rejuvenated park area, homemade apple pie at the fishing pond, and a stop to plant corn seeds in newly plowed, fragrant soil.
As he ferried the visitors around on a hayride, Fournier, who lives at the FX Ranch in Dewey, said he was "emotional" remembering the thousands of schoolchildren to whom he gave hayrides and educated about farming through the years he worked with Young's Farm. He's excited about seeing the farm come alive again.
Dewey-Humboldt Mayor Len Marinaccio said all the effort took was getting the right people around the table, and he feels the Mortimers are the perfect fit.
"I got to know them, and I saw the way they handled their team. They are respectful and straight shooters," he said.
Elmer Young established Young's Farm in 1946 in the silt rich soil of the Lonesome Valley basin. In the mid-1980s, the farm began its popular annual pumpkin festivals, drawing more than 100,000 people each year, including from the Valley. Locals favored the farm for its fresh produce, annual sweet corn, and naturally raised turkeys.
Because Young's Farm was located in the Prescott Active Management water area, which seeks safe yield status (recharging as much water as it draws from groundwater) by the year 2025, state law required that the farm either sold immediately for housing development, which uses less water than agriculture, or face losing 4 percent of the water rights for development each year until those rights disappeared. The Youngs said they did not want to lose the option of selling their land for such development in the future. After trying a number of strategies to slow or change the process, the Youngs sold the property to Monogram Development and moved to a large ranch in Paulina, Ore. Irrigation water rights that existed before the Groundwater Act of 1980 are grandfathered, however, and the Mortimers will farm under those rights.
Monogram subsequently brought a number of development proposals to the Dewey-Humboldt Town Council, but the two never came to an agreement on developing the property. Mortimer Family Farms Assistant Director of Operations Mike Nathe said the Mortimers are leasing the property from what is now Yavapai Land Holdings.
Gary Mortimer said his family began working on the lease in October 2010. He said the effort is a good fit, because his Ash Creek Ranch is located 10 miles east of the farm, and he also does some farming in partnership with the Phoenix YMCA at Chauncey Ranch in Mayer. In fact, it was the ability to pull resources from both of these businesses that enabled the Mortimers to clean up and ready the farm's fields for planting so quickly.
This summer, he said, the family plans to put 100 acres of the farm into production, with sweet corn and pumpkins. An additional portion of the land will produce fresh vegetables for sale at the farm store, and within 30 days, a second plant nursery operation will offer vegetable and flower plants for sale.
Mortimer said he is excited about farming the former Young's land, because it's great soil to begin with, and the Youngs took care of it through the years.
"This is the best farm in Yavapai County as far as soil. You can't find anything like it anywhere else," he said.
Mortimer added that while the farm is not certified organic, he will farm as naturally as possible.
Many people who enjoyed Young's farm activities in the past can look forward to such events in the future. The Mortimers have cleared a beautiful park area near the Agua Fria River that is shaded by trees and will provide a perfect venue for weddings, reunions, barbecues and other activities. They are filling the fishpond at the farm and will soon stock it, so people can come and fish off the pond's deck. The Town of Dewey-Humboldt will partner with the Mortimers this coming fall for the Agua Fria Festival, which will include picking fresh pumpkins from the fields.
Mortimer said the family will keep prices reasonable, because their intent is to make the farm a family friendly place to visit. He said the farm expects to employ 30-40 people when it is up and running.
Not only does Mortimer hope to draw people from the Phoenix area, but he wants local folks to embrace the farm again as they did in the past.
"It's exciting, both from the community aspect, and in bringing this land back to production," he said.
The farm, located at the intersection of Highway 69 and 169 in Dewey-Humboldt, plans its first community events beginning Saturday, April 30, with a Community Volunteer Work day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The farm is seeking help to clean up the wash adjacent to the property. Please bring a shovel, rake or small tree branch trimming equipment. At noon, the farm will host a Community Support Meeting at the old farm store. This is an organizational/planning meeting to help prepare for the farm's first big events the following week.
A public groundbreaking ceremony will take place on May 6 from 1-5 p.m. Visitors are invited to participate in the first crop by planting corn seeds, and the Mortimers will talk about the process of planting and harvesting this year's crop.
The following day, Saturday, May 7, the farm will conduct a festival and "monumental bonfire" with live music, entertainment, food vendors and other activities beginning at 11 a.m. Admission will be $7.50 for adults, $5 for 18 and under, and kids 5 and under are free. Parking is free, and people should bring their own chairs. (The festival is subject to cancellation for severe weather or fire danger).
For more information on the Mortimer Family Farms or on upcoming events, call Mike Nathe at 928-830-1116 or email Mike@MortimerFamilyFarms.com.