Though there's been plenty of growth and development that has come to the county, especially within the last five years, the majority of Pinal's cities and towns started as — and in some cases remain to this day — agricultural communities.
For communities like Casa Grande, that long agricultural legacy has made programs like FFA an important and memorable part of growing up. Not only is FFA looked upon favorably for the incredible array of hands-on experiences and understanding of the agricultural industry it affords students, but it is also widely recognized for sustaining traditions that have come to mean a great deal within many local communities.
At Casa Grande Union High School, one long-standing tradition put on by the school's FFA program is the annual Steak Fry. Each year, the event is sponsored by businesses and is organized and run by FFA members.
According to Casey Farnsworth, Casa Grande FFA adviser, the tradition has been around for well over 30 years.
"It's something that the community looks forward to every year," he said.
The event can attract up to 2,000 people, who come to enjoy a grilled 8-ounce sirloin steak, beans, potato salad, tortilla chips, a cookie and a drink, plus each others' company.
"It's not really an 'eat-and-go' kind of a thing," Farnsworth said. "People want to sit down, eat, socialize and visit. That's something that they really look forward to so they'll stay the whole night."
The steak fry serves a dual purpose for the Casa Grande FFA chapter. On the one hand, the event is an opportunity for students to get involved and be in engaged in the program by organizing, preparing for and running the event. On the other, it's also the program's largest fundraiser of the year.
If sponsorships cover the full cost of putting on the dinner, the event typically raises over $20,000 in funding for the program. Those funds help cover the costs of student activities and travel throughout the year, including their attendance at the National FFA Convention this year. The convention is hosted annually in Indianapolis.
In October, Casa Grande students will attend the conference to compete as national finalists after the program was selected as the top chapter in Arizona. But it isn't the first time Casa Grande FFA has earned such distinguished recognition. The program was also selected as a national finalist in another category in 2020.
"Without the steak fry, we wouldn't be able to do probably half the things we normally do each year," Farnsworth said.
And while the annual fundraiser relies heavily on the efforts made by the FFA program, another integral component to the event is the support of local sponsors who provide some of the food served at the event.
For example, the beans served alongside each steak are donated by Helena Agri-Enterprises in Casa Grande. Each year, the company donates about 250 pounds of beans, which FFA members sort through and clean by hand before they are cooked up by the CGUHS Food Services Department.
Student involvement in the fundraiser extends to almost every area of the event, which includes activities like coordinating with sponsors well ahead of the event, cutting and preparing the wood for the barbecue and seasoning the steaks the day of.
Students, however, aren't the only ones involved. Steaks are barbecued over a mesquite fire on custom grills. The barbecuing is done by a group of volunteer dads who have pitched in to help the program for the past few years, Farnsworth noted.
"It takes an army to be able to put it all up in one day and take it all down that same night," he said.
The program is always trying out new things to make the event accessible to more people. In 2019, FFA members found a way to organize and run a drive-thru in tandem with the regular sit-down meal service the event offered.
The group had initially tried it out just to see how the logistics of operating a drive-thru would work, Farnsworth said. The chapter ended up serving about 400 meals through the drive-thru alone that first year. In addition, the experiment came in handy the following year amid the COVID pandemic.
The 2020 Casa Grande FFA Steak Fry still proved fruitful for CG Union's FFA, despite the unprecedented circumstances brought on by the pandemic, with the program selling about 1,500 plates over the course of the evening.
"It was fantastic! We felt accomplished that we were able to pull it off even during a COVID year," Farnsworth said.
Given that the event was drive-thru-only last year, he estimates that support at this year's in-person event will likely return to pre-COVID levels.
But while 2,000 people in one night might seem like a lot, Farnsworth noted that there are likely a lot of new residents to the Casa Grande area that don't even know the event exists.
"I think the majority of who comes are those that have been coming for years," he said.
The event, however, welcomes everyone — whether they are longtime locals or out-of-towners. And every once in a while, it manages to attract people from outside the area.
This year's event is scheduled for Nov. 5 and will feature both in-person, drive-thru and to-go options. Students are always fairly excited about getting to participate in the long-standing tradition of the steak fry, and for Farnsworth it's equally heartwarming to witness the support from the community.
"It doesn't matter (if they're) freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors, these kids just look forward to this every year and it's just a huge accomplishment on their part," he said. "It's a lot of work, but there's great rewards that come with work."