Special for the San Tan Monthly
Sept. 12, 2005
As Mark and Carrie Schnepf watch new houses go up all around their farm, they can't help but wonder what it would be like to follow their former farming neighbors and cash in on skyrocketing land values.
But Carrie said they don't want to sell.
"We'll be a little country oasis right here in the middle of the city," Carrie said. "It's a legacy we want to keep for not only the town, but for our children and future generations."
Schnepf Farm is 250 acres in Queen Creek that the Schnepfs have turned into a combination of entertainment and farming, often referred to as "agritainment" or "agritourism."
According to Mark, his grandparents bought land in the middle of the desert in 1941 for his parents, Ray and Thora. His grandparents were already living on a farm in what is now downtown Mesa.
"They (his parents) spent their honeymoon night out here in a 1-room shack in the desert," Mark said. "My parents basically developed the farm, and then a couple of years later, my grandparents moved out here."
Eventually the family was farming potatoes and other vegetables on more than 5,000 acres of land, and was shipping produce all over the world. But as the farming economy started to decline in the 70s, it became harder to keep the farm alive.
Mark, who had left the farm to go to school to be a lawyer, said his dad wasn't sure that he wanted to pass on the tough life of a farmer to Mark. But when Schnepf Farm continued to struggle in the 80s, Mark's dad asked for help.
"I said, 'You know, I'd love a break from school. Yeah, for 6 months or a year, I'll go back to the farm and work and make some money,'" Mark said. "But once I got here, I just never left. It just became a wonderful experience working with my father. Very challenging because we were going through hard financial times, but just a wonderful family experience being here and trying to figure out how to make it all work."
By the time Mark met Carrie on a blind date in 1990, Mark said the "future of the farm was very bleak." They were married in April of 1991, six months after they met. They soon decided if they were going to keep the farm, they had to make some tough decisions.
"We figured we'd have to reinvent ourselves and just do something completely different, but keep it a farm because by then some of our neighbors had started to sell for development," Mark says. "So we turned to entertainment farming, or agritourism."
The Schnepfs describe agritourism as a combination of entertainment and education. Carrie said more than 30,000 schoolchildren visit the farm each year to ride the roller coaster, play with the animals, pick vegetables from the garden or ride the train around the farm. And while they're having fun, they're also learning, Mark said.
"It's as simple as the miniature golf course that we built," Mark said. "There are things planted around the course that farms grow, like citrus trees and things like that, that kind of help educate people while they're having fun."
Carrie has used her news media /broadcasting skills to create and promote events aimed at getting people to the farm. The farm closes to the public each summer, but more than 250,000 people every year now attend Schnepf Farm events like the Pumpkin and Chili Party in October and the Peach Festival in May.
The Schnepfs said they are excited about celebrating 65 years of farming in Queen Creek this year, and about some of their new attractions. They bought an old farmhouse from a nearby farm that was sold to developers, and they are moving it to their property and turning it into an agricultural museum.
The Schnepfs are also excited about a new partnership with Salt River Project that will make theirs the first farm in the nation operated totally by renewable sources of energy instead of fossil fuels.
"We're environmentally protecting the public," Carrie said. "So not only do we not use pesticides so all our food is organic, and not only are we entertaining the public, but now everything, including all of the vehicles, is going to be powered by earthwise energy, which is going to be a really neat thing."
As they look to the future, Mark and Carrie admit the farm will change as they continue to add to their theme park. But they said Schnepf Farm will be around in some form to provide that legacy for future generations, and for multiple generations.
"We're getting to the point where people who've come and visited the farm as children are now grown and having children of their own and bringing their children to our farm," Mark said. "We take great pleasure in being able to give families memorable experiences that will stay with them for a lifetime and we hope that continues for generations to come."
For more information on Schnepf Farm and the Pumpkin and Chili Party that begins Oct. 1 and is held every Thursday-Sunday in October, visit www.schnepffarms.com.