In 1984 James Howard started what he calls "a community project," selling produce to his friends and neighbors.

"They said, 'You're a farmer and everyone has to go up to Willcox to buy everything,' " he recalled.

Now, nearly 30 years later, that project is still going strong.

Howard, 75, and his wife Becky, 61, own Howard's Orchard, 4101 E. Pinal St., a you-pick farm in Catalina. Customers come from around the state from July until November to pick their own produce, which they buy by the pound.

The Howards moved to Tucson in 1976 from Tipp City, Ohio, after a doctor told James that his health required him to live in a warm, dry climate. Becky's mother lived in Tucson, and after coming here for a visit in December 1975, they decided to make the desert their home.

"The first day I was here I was sold on it," James said. "I said, 'This is where we're moving.' "

In April 1976 they drove 35 hours with all their belongings and moved into a trailer park in the city. Within a year, they got sick of the urban environment and bought 3 1/2 acres in Catalina, north of Tucson, for $15,000, moving into the property in 1978. After spending a year cleaning up the land, they drilled a well and planted their first trees, starting with 15 to 20 apple trees.

It's blossomed from there.

"Things just grow here," Howard said.

The operation has about 700 tomato plants, 125 cucumber plants, 100 peach trees, 150 apple trees, 10 pear trees, six pecan trees and two walnut trees.

Prices range from a quarter a pound for walnuts to $2.50 per pound for tomatoes.

Howard's Orchard averages around 100 customers a day, and while most come from Tucson, many come from the Phoenix area because the pickings are mostly organic.

"It's not irradiated, sprayed with chemicals and not picked before it's ripe," said customer and Avra Valley resident Tobie McMaster. "It's also a nice experience to pick your own, rather than going to a grocery store. Plus I'd rather have someone in the community get my money than a corporation."

McMaster, 41, drives 35 miles twice a year to the orchard. He comes once with his parents in July for peaches, then again in October for apples. This year his brother came with the family for the first time.

"I come to get the peaches," said Tobie's 72-year-old father, Jan. "They don't last very long."

Howard does the majority of the work on the farm by himself. On a typical day he wakes up at 4 a.m. and works till 1 p.m., tying tomato plants, pruning trees and mowing grass. When temperatures hit 100, he has to water the plants 24 hours a day to make sure they don't die.

"This place is hard on you," Howard said. "It's like having a baby. You can't go off and leave it."

Howard suffered a back injury in 2004 that required him to hire help. This year is the first year since the injury he's been able to do most of the work by himself.

While Howard does worry that the farm might eventually fold, he has no plans to sell it and will continue to work as long as his health allows.

"Farming is a love-hate thing," he said. "I just hope I wake up tomorrow and live as long as I need to."

If you go

• What: Howard's Orchard.

• Hours: 6:30 a.m.-noon Wednesday-Saturday.

• Where: 4101 E. Pinal St.

• Info: 825-9413 or (listed under Pima County) online.

• How to get there: From Tucson, head north on North Oracle Road. Coming into Catalina, turn right on Hawser Street (at the Burger King). After Hawser ends, turn left on Columbus Boulevard. Go one mile, then turn left on Pinal Street. After a quarter mile, Howard's Orchard is on the right.

Justin Sayers is a University of Arizona student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact him at 573-4117 or