Mark Schnepf sits in the living room of the house he grew up in - now a reception center on the farm that has long borne his family's name - and reflects on offers that were difficult to refuse.
It was the height of the real-estate boom that swept Arizona in the last decade, and crazy money was being thrown around for land. Schnepf estimates that a developer would have paid as much as $40 million for the 300-acre farm at Rittenhouse and Cloud roads in Queen Creek.
Hearing this, his wife, Carrie, buries her face in her hands - but only half-seriously.
Yes, cashing out would have enabled the Schnepfs to really enjoy life and have the capital to try another business venture. But they felt an obligation, not only to the dreams they still had for the land, but to the dying breed of Arizona farming families and the thousands of visitors Schnepf Farms attracts each year.
They agonized over the decision, but couldn't sell.
"We both come from agricultural families," Carrie Schnepf said. "I love it; this is what we do. And it's something that has to be done. If people like us - the farming families - don't continue on with it, Arizona will become one big urban sprawl."
The endurance of Schnepf Farms, which traces its roots to a 640-acre purchase made by Mark's grandfather, Jack, is being commemorated with a 70th-anniversary celebration throughout 2011. Anniversary festivities will complement the farm's popular annual events, including the Queen Creek Peach Festival and Pumpkin & Chili Party.
"We have stayed here because we wanted to raise our family on the farm," said Mark Schnepf, who married Carrie in 1991. The couple has four children. "As the years went by, we started to realize the value of preserving a piece of Arizona's agricultural history. Doing this has become our opportunity to preserve that legacy."
As Queen Creek has evolved from sleepy farm town to booming residential and commercial development center - a process partly overseen by Mark Schnepf, the town's mayor from 1989-2000 - Schnepf Farms has served as a reliable attraction, where time stands still.
"They were here before the town was incorporated as a town," said Doreen Cott, Queen Creek's economic development director. "To have it here as a destination is really an important piece of the town's history. They bring in a number of visitors outside the area to Queen Creek. That is important as an economic driver for the community."
The Schnepf facility is no longer a traditional farm; at its peak, it covered 5,000 acres and produced a variety of crops. Today, the emphasis is on peaches, apricots and plums - and, most important, "agri-tainment."
The facility boasts a train ride, roller coaster, petting zoo and concession stands made out of original farm buildings and those from other areas of the southeast Valley that were saved from destruction and transported. Over the years, Schnepf's Farm has become synonymous with food and music festivals.
"They are very innovative, forward-thinking in the crops they planted and the manner in which they did business, trying new things," said Queen Creek Mayor Gail Barney, a longtime family friend. "After Mark took over, there was a need to downsize, and he was foresighted enough to turn it into an agri-tainment venture, do it and do it well.
"It has been valuable in teaching the community the history and the value of agriculture - schools take field trips there all the time - and what it means to the community."
The farm remains a modest family operation; when the phone rings, Mark or Carrie Schnepf usually answer.
"A client gave me a proposal one time and told me to look it over with my marketing team," Carrie Schnepf said. "I said, ‘Well, that's me.' "
At one of the first Pumpkin & Chili Parties, Mark Schnepf said, the farm was running dangerously low on paper bowls. He furiously drove to the only store within 45 minutes - a Circle K - and cleaned out the Dixie product shelf.
Progress has made shopping for supplies much easier, but the cost has been the farmland that defined the area for decades. The farm owned by Barney and his family will be the latest to disappear; the land at Queen Creek and Signal Butte roads is being designated as commercial land.
"It takes a lot of effort to farm, and we have to get out of it," Barney said. "So, it's nice to see a family keep the roots and keep farming in the community."
The drive behind the Schnepfs' continuing farm operation represents their future plans. The farm has received approval to build Queen Creek's first cemetery on its land, and a 10-room, country-style inn is in the works, meaning that time will stand a little less still on the farm.
Through the coming changes, a new generation awaits. At least two of the Schnepf children are interested in taking over the farm someday.
"Mark's dad took the farm, gave it to him, and we thought about where we could take things, what things we would try, create a blueprint and build it up," Carrie Schnepf said. "It would be so thrilling to see that continue."
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