Gila County is famous for a few things: copper mining, cattle ranching, the Pleasant Valley War—not so much for its farm produce.
But if you are a chef at one of the Valley’s four-star restaurants searching for some of Arizona’s best asparagus, peaches, or lettuce, you just might find it here.
For 35 years, Peter “Bigfoot” Busnack has quietly been growing some of the region’s highest-quality organic produce on his 12-acre farm in the Tonto National Forest, an hour’s drive northwest of Globe.
Valley chefs such as Chris Bianco (Pizzeria Bianco), Aaron Chamberlin (St. Francis, Phoenix Public Market Café), and Chris Lenza (Café Allegro at MIM) compete for the output from Bigfoot’s garden and orchard.
And they aren’t the only ones who prize Peter Bigfoot’s farm produce. At Globe-Miami’s farmers market, Bigfoot often sells out of kale, chard, lettuce, and eggs within minutes of the market’s opening. He has shipped fruit to aficionados as far away as Florida.
Chefs, home cooks, foodies, and gardeners will soon have the chance to see firsthand how Bigfoot turns his patch of Arizona soil into delicious food. Starting in February, Bigfoot will be offering farm-to-table tours leaving from Globe. Bigfoot himself will lead a tour of the farm, followed by a light lunch prepared from fresh ingredients from the farm’s garden and orchard.
Picture a narrow valley between cactus-covered hills, with a creek running through it. In the center of the valley is a lush one-acre garden with row upon row of thriving vegetables. A few orange marigolds and pink cosmos are scattered around to attract bees and butterflies.
To one side of the garden is a white 1920s farmhouse with green trim, surrounded by rose and pomegranate bushes. To the other side is an orchard with a hundred-odd fruit and nut trees.
Chickens dart through the orchard, and the sounds of roosters crowing and turkeys gobbling fills the air.
The place smells of soil, composted manure, and woodsmoke.
This is Reevis Mountain School of Self-Reliance, where Peter Bigfoot farms year-round. It’s off the grid, eight miles off Highway 188 and six miles from the nearest neighbor—a cattle ranch. Electricity comes from an array of solar panels; water, from Campaign Creek and two mountain springs.
Produce grown on this land—in fresh country air, irrigated with spring water—has got to be good.
Bigfoot and his crew of interns tend the rows of plants by hand and fertilize them organically. The only mechanized tool is a walk-behind tiller.
But ask Bigfoot what really makes his produce so delicious, and he’ll say, “It’s the love.”
The motto of Reevis Mountain School is “Live What You Love,” and it’s apparent that Peter Bigfoot does just that.
Bigfoot’s gusto and vigor might be all the advertising his farm needs. He works from dawn to dusk, often putting in hours in the farm’s office after everyone else has gone to bed—then waking early to chop firewood or prune his fruit trees.
Recently, on his 74th birthday, he climbs to the top of a 12-foot ladder to harvest persimmons. Two interns, Cynthia and Luis, stand at the foot of the ladder, taking the fruit one by one and packing them into recycled tomato flats. Most of the fruit makes it into the boxes.
“Oh ho,” Bigfoot says, licking the sweet orange pulp from his fingers. “Just got a bird-pecked one.” He says those are the sweetest.
Persimmons that aren’t sold are either dried into chewy candies, or frozen individually to be enjoyed as a sorbet-like treat in the summer.
It’s said that almost one-third of the food produced in the United States goes to waste. Bigfoot doesn’t want that to happen to the food he grows—it’s too good.
That’s one reason he prefers to sell his produce to customers one on one, taking time to explain how it’s grown and how to prepare it. Call it Slow Salesmanship.
Maybe that’s why Peter Bigfoot and his farm are something of a well-kept secret. Unless you’re already in the know, you might not suspect that the tall, white-haired man you sometimes see on Broad Street, wearing a felt hat and homemade boots, has an ice chest full of world-class vegetables in the back of his truck.
Bigfoot wields a hoe as if he’d been born with it. His long, muscular arms help. Also, he’s been growing food since he was 8 years old.
“In my younger years I spent a lot of time being sick from whatever disease was going around at the time,” he says. “I began to understand that my body was the most precious thing in my life. I began to be very conscious of what I ate, and realized that the healthiest food was what I could grow myself.”
Peter Busnack grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, and learned to garden from his father. Peter and his brother, Charles, competed to see who could grow the most in their family’s garden beds.
When Peter came to Arizona in 1964, he learned to garden in the desert, and turned the backyard of his Sunnyslope house into a productive oasis. There were citrus trees, a vegetable garden, and a vineyard.
Meanwhile, he worked on construction sites as a carpenter and spent summers backpacking around the world.
When he was 34, Busnack undertook an adventure that changed his life. At 5:30 a.m. on July 11, 1976, he set off from what is now New River and hiked 85 miles to Four Peaks Mountain, in 15 days. And, just to prove he could, he did it without taking any food or water.
He used a compass to navigate, and foraged for all his food. He ate everything from ironwood peas to rattlesnakes.
After he made it back to civilization alive, the exploit was written up in the Arizona Republic. Busnack became well known around Phoenix for his desert survival skills. Soon Peter Busnack had taken on the name Bigfoot, and had a reputation to match. He began teaching wilderness survival classes in the Superstitions.
And that’s how he found his farm.
In 1979 Bigfoot first set foot on the land that would become Reevis Mountain School and instantly felt chills go up his spine.
“I knew right away this was home,” he says.
At the time, the land was known as the Upper Horrell Ranch. It had been homesteaded in the 1920s and grandfathered in when the Tonto National Forest was formed. It remains an island of 12 privately owned acres surrounded by national forest, at the edge of the Superstition Wilderness.
That same day, on the way back to Phoenix, Bigfoot stopped at the Spring Creek store in Roosevelt. By coincidence Jim Tidwell—the owner of the land—was there.
Bigfoot describes how he approached Tidwell and asked if he would consider selling.
“What do you want to do with it?” Tidwell asked. The land had been in his family for years, and he had rejected many other offers.
“Well, I’d like to grow vegetables and an orchard and make a little Garden of Eden out of it,” was Peter’s answer.
“That’s the most sensible thing I’ve heard yet,” Tidwell said. “Let me talk to my wife.”
In the end, Tidwell sold the land to Bigfoot and a group of friends, who became co-owners.
They moved to the land in 1980 and started to prepare the garden and plant the orchard.
In the early days they hauled water from Campaign Creek in five-gallon buckets to irrigate the saplings and the young garden.
They renovated the old farmhouse, which today houses a kitchen, dining room, library, and office. At first they lived in backpacking tents, then they built the structures called yurpees—a combination of yurt and teepee—that still dot the landscape at Reevis.
Over the years, the farm added flocks of chickens and turkeys, a vineyard, a greenhouse, and a blackberry patch.
Nearly all the food that is eaten on the farm is grown there.
Bigfoot’s personal values of self-sufficiency, simplicity, frugality, and health have led the farm to develop a cuisine of its own. The food is seasonal, simple, and hearty, and it’s delicious because the ingredients are fresh and high quality.
In the winter, meals at Reevis are comfortingly monotonous: every day there are steamed greens, roasted or steamed winter squash, root vegetables cooked with a minimum-moisture method, cornbread or whole grains, and fried eggs for breakfast or meaty stews for supper.
I lived at Reevis for six years, and in all that time I never wearied of eating the same foods every day—because they were so good. On a recent visit I remarked to Luis, the intern, “You never say, ‘I don’t feel like having any steamed greens this morning.'”
“No,” he agreed. “You say, heck yeah, I want some of those!”
In the warmer months, the menu becomes more varied, depending on what’s available in the garden: mixed vegetables grilled, raw, or lightly steamed; green salads made from six kinds of lettuce, with flower petals scattered on top; homemade pickles. Dishes sometimes include local wild plants, such as the watercress that grows in the creek.
In the summertime, Bigfoot and his interns often have their lunch in the orchard, eating nothing but fruit from one tree after another.
On spring mornings you’re likely to find Bigfoot in his garden, chomping a stalk of asparagus that he’s just snapped off.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” he’ll say.
His asparagus beds are over 25 years old, and they produce up to nine pounds every day at the peak of the season.
“In April, we had asparagus with every meal,” a former intern said. “We became asparagus-atarians.”
The soil in Bigfoot’s garden is rich and crumbly, the color of coffee grounds. He’s been fertilizing it for 35 years with composted manure from an organic dairy farm in Gilbert. Chard leaves grow as large as elephant ears, and the winter squash often weighs in over 20 pounds.
Bigfoot saves his own seeds, harvesting them from the plants that produce the biggest and tastiest vegetables. Over the years he has developed varieties especially suited to the farm’s climate and soil.
One of his apricot trees is a unique variety that sprouted in the orchard on its own and produces apricots with flavors of mangoes and bananas. Peter planted it outside his own doorstep so he can snack on the fruit before breakfast.
One of his favorite vegetables is lemon cucumbers—popular at farmers markets, but too delicate and perishable for regular grocery stores to carry them.
He also grows a type of radish that’s pink in the middle and has a green skin. They look like tiny watermelons.
A popular item at the Globe-Miami farmers market is a fruit called the jujube. They are the size of a Medjool date, with a similar pit, but with crisp, sweet flesh like an apple.
Bigfoot grows a crop of flour corn every year, with red, yellow, and blue kernels. The interns use an antique sheller to remove the kernels, and then grind the grain to make cornbread and grits. The dried stalks are sold in Globe for Halloween decorations.
Wheat and oats are grown for chicken feed. Interns harvest and cure olives, gather and grind mesquite pods for baking, and collect pecans from trees surrounding the farmhouse.
Bigfoot also grows herbs in his garden, including echinacea, lemon balm, comfrey, mints, and calendula. With these he makes a line of artisanal herbal remedies, sold on the farm’s website and at Pickle Barrel in Globe.
In addition to selling produce and herbal remedies, Bigfoot teaches classes on wilderness survival, herbology, natural healing, and off-grid living. He’s often invited to lecture in the Valley, and regularly speaks at REI, the Superstition Mountain Museum, and Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine.
Upwards of 500 people visit Reevis Mountain School every year. Some travel long distances to see the farm and meet Peter Bigfoot after they’ve heard of him for years. Some stumble onto the farm by accident while four-wheeling or hunting.
However, getting to Reevis Mountain School can be an adventure in itself. The farm is located at the end of a rough forest road that has soft sandy stretches, steep hills, and several creek crossings. A heavy storm can leave the road impassable.
Bigfoot tells of the time it rained 22 inches in one month and they couldn’t get a vehicle in or out for several weeks. “We packed in fifty-pound sacks of feed and a set of solar panels,” he says.
“Those were the days when I was a rootin’ tootin’ Fig Newton.”
Nowadays, the road still requires a high-clearance 4X4. Lesser vehicles are usually defeated by the section of road dubbed Car Killer Hill.
Fortunately, the farm-to-table tours that Bigfoot will be offering in 2016 will include a shuttle from Globe. Tickets and further information are available online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/reevis-mountain-farm-to-table-tours-2016-tickets-20676049621. UPDATE 2018: The tours are no longer available
Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She currently lives on Santa Maria island in the Azores.