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From U-Pick to farm festivals & events, profitable organic operation becomes

Carnival of Organic Diversity

by Catt Foy

This article first appeared in Acres, USA: A Voice for Eco-Agriculture in February 1999.

The Duncans never really planned on having an organic farm. Arnott Duncan knew that he wanted to be a farmer - it was in his blood. And although Arnott and his siblings lived in Phoenix so they could attend parochial school, they spent a lot of time at the family's cotton farm in Tolleson, Arizona. Arnott always felt close to the his agricultural heritage. He went on to study agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Arizona, where he met his future wife, Kathleen. Little did he realize that he was to become a farming pioneer of a different variety.

Arnott (pronounced like "darn-it" without the "d") is a strapping, handsome man, intelligent and articulate. His eyes dance with delight when he speaks about the land, the soil, the trees. "I love farming," he says. "Farming is fun!" His love for the nature of growing things is evident. Equally evident is his love for his wife and children.

Kathleen is a smiling, blond dynamo. Together they have two sons: Kell, 10 and Sean, 8. In the early years of their marriage, Kathleen, who has masters degree in psychology and counseling, worked for the State of Arizona as an early education consultant. Kathleen commuted daily to downtown Phoenix, 35 miles from Arnott's farming operation.

But there was a problem. "We wanted more time for family," Arnott said.

The solution was to open a produce stand on a corner of the acreage that was being farmed commercially, and known as Sunfresh Farms, located in Goodyear, Arizona. Kathleen wanted to bring an educational element to the project, and decided to use the produce stand as an opportunity to teach urban folk about where their food and fiber come from. The Duncans also wanted to provide a place to educate children about various crops and get them involved in a hands-on environment. It was from this seed of an idea that Duncan Family Farms has grown to become a model for others.

Today, the Duncans have what they refer to as a "schizophrenic" operation - the little farm and the big farm. The big farm is Sunfresh Farms, 2,000 acres of commercial farming, of which 400 are currently certified organic and producing vegetables, cotton and small grains. The little farm is Duncan Family Farms, a 40-acre corner open to the public.

"There's a story as to how we got into organics, and it's kind of embarrassing how it happened," Arnott said.

Around the time the Duncans opened the produce stand, the big farm had a problem. Years of erosion and chemical-based farming had left serious deficiencies in the soil. "We were basically farming hydroponically," Arnott said. "The soil was real good for holding the roots in place and keeping the plants upright." Nutrients were so scarce in the existing soil that they had to be "spoon-fed" to the plants. "But that's not very efficient. You need to address the needs of the soil, which can then address the needs of the plant."

"So there's this problem on the big farm," Arnott continued. "Then we opened the little farm, and we installed a demonstration garden." The demonstration garden had problems of its own. It was too big to fertilize by hand and too small to fertilize with the equipment used on the big farm.

In spite of their difficulties, the Duncans continued to develope the virtues of the little farm, and in October of 1992, hosted their first annual Pumpkin Festival. To provide seating for visitors, they brought in straw bales. That year proved to be a rainy one and after the festival the straw bales began to decay. Attempts to dry them failed; the bales had to go.

"So we threw them into this big pile just to get them out of the way," said Arnott.

In the meantime, the little farm was growing in popularity, with more and more families visiting the farm to pick produce from the demonstration garden. The little farm was also hosting bus tours of elementary school students from throughout the Phoenix area. The Duncans added a petting zoo to the produce stand and the U-Pick garden.

"Parents were saying, ?Well, every farm has to have animals!'" Arnott laughed. "But we're a vegetable farm! But...for the little guys, we decided to go ahead and open this little petting zoo." When faced with the question of what to do with the tailings from the petting zoo, Arnott instructed his employees, "Go ahead and throw them on that pile out there."

The school tours increased. As more and more buses began to visit the farm that winter, "that pile out there" soon proved to be an inconvenience, and had to be moved. In fact, as traffic to the farm increased, the pile was moved several times. Arnott observed, "One time, this steam came billowing out. At the end of this rainy season, we had this really nice compost on the bottom of this pile." They decided to use the compost on the U-Pick Gardens and thereby solved one problem.

The Duncans soon realized that they may have found the solution to the problem on the big farm as well. "At the end of the growing season, we were stunned as to what the compost would do for the plants. Here we had plants that needed nitrogen, a lot of nitrogen, and the soil was able to give that up, it had enough. So, that's how we got into composting - just this goofy little pile out there."

Soon, Arnott had negotiated an arrangement with a local race track to receive their waste products, and he began composting seriously on the big farm. Arnott recalls his first meeting at the track. "I called...and said that we were interested in their raw material. I understood that they were presently hauling it to multiple locations at quite an expense. I offered them the opportunity to drop it off at one place. The guy looked at me like I was wearing lobster earrings and asked me if I was serious. I explained what we wanted to do. He said, ?Yeah, you can have the stuff, but you have to take it all.' My first reaction was to say OK. Then after a second I asked, ?Wait a minute. How much is all?' And he said, ?Six to eight semi-loads a day.'"

Although that was considerably more than Arnott had expected, he soon set aside 20 acres for composting. At that time, there were no other farms in central Arizona composting at that scale. The Duncans saw an opportunity to break new ground, and educate others in the process. Through a grant from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, they were able to obtain the necessary equipment for the composting operation.

"I knew that one of the downsides to the grant was that whatever we found out would be published," Arnott said. "But then I thought, maybe this is my role. Maybe my role is to learn how and to teach others how to do it."

The Duncans' findings were published and other farms soon followed suit. Today, a competitor gets the racetrack waste, although the Duncans have found other resources for the raw materials from area dairy farms. "What we're doing now is we're buying some dairy manure and some municipal yard waste and we're adding that to it," said Arnott. This proved to be only the first of many examples to be set on the farm.

Another program initiated on Sunfresh Farms that was soon adopted by others was the Duncans' gleaning program. "One of the things that bothered us was the amount of food that had to be wasted," Kathleen said. As commercial farmers know, there are times when the market value of a crop drops so low that it is not worth the expense of harvesting. Even in a healthy market, there is often produce remaining in the fields following the harves. The Duncans wanted to find a way to get this "left-over" food to people who needed it.

Sunfresh and Duncan Family Farms lies adjacent to Perryville State Prison. In an area where urban growth is rapidly spreading, this works to the farm's advantage. State prison officials don't want homes built close to prisons, and they value the farms that provide a buffer between developed areas and correctional facilities. And the presence of the prison helps create a certain security for the farm and its equipment. "We have our equipment yard next to the prison wall. It's amazing how much less vandalism there is," said Arnott.

Working with prison officials and the Westside Food Bank, the Duncans arranged to have the leftover produce gleaned from the fields by prisoners. The food bank then received the food and distributed it to those in need.

"I think a lot of other farms in the area thought about this idea, but they didn't know how to go about it," Kathleen said. The Duncans created an arrangement that worked to the benefit of all involved, and the program has now grown to statewide proportions and includes many other farms and food banks throughout Arizona. Sunfresh Farms alone provides over one million pounds of produce a year in cooperation with the Arizona Department of Corrections and the Association of Arizona Food Banks.

Another program initiated by the Duncans which is growing rapidly is their Christmas tree replanting program. "I love trees," Arnott said. "And they're the perfect biological filter to act as a buffer between development and agriculture. They filter out dust and pollens from the fields, provide shade, reduce noise and air pollution, and add oxygen to the atmosphere." This is especially important in an area like Phoenix, where temperature inversions often trap pollution over the valley in the winter months.

Each year, the Duncans plant hundreds of trees to serve as wind breaks and to reduce soil erosion. They also purchase enough pine tree seedlings from the State Land Department to plant a half-mile of trees along the roads surrounding their fields. Although most of the farm is leased land, and will probably one day soon be housing developments, the Duncans believe in leaving a legacy of trees behind.

"Ten, fifteen years from now, we may not be farming here, but the trees will still be there and will be an asset to the community," Kathleen said.

This December (1998) will mark their fourth year of the Christmas Tree re-planting program. "We sell locally grown live trees," Kathleen said. "Many people told us that they would like to buy a live tree, but they didn't have anywhere to plant it after the holidays." People who live in apartments, or who are bound by deed restrictions to desert landscaping simply had no place to plant a tree. To encourage folks to "buy live", the Duncans offer a certificate good for a U-Pick bag of produce from the demonstration garden to anyone who returns their live Christmas tree to the farm. The Duncans then see to it that the live trees are planted.

This program has also met with success. The number of trees returned to be planted has doubled every year.

In addition to these programs, the Duncans are committed to a "whole environment approach" to farming. The farm has been recognized as a "virtual showcase of progressive and environmentally sensitive agricultural techniques. We have a deep understanding that our relationship with nature and the ways we use the land will determine the future of the earth," the Duncans have written.

That deep understanding has not gone unnoticed. The Duncans have received several awards for their creative and sensitive approaches including the Master Card Master Planter Award for "dedication to improving the environment...and educating and inspiring others to become environmental activists." Phoenix area Valley Forward Association, an organization whose mission is to improve the environment and quality of life in Valley communities awarded the Duncans their prestigious first place Crescordia award for environmental excellence. They've also received an Environmental Leadership Award from Governor's Pride in Arizona and an Environmental Education Award from the Natural Resource Conservation District.

The farm utilizes such techniques as integrated pest management, releasing beneficial insects (such as ladybugs) as part of their pest control. They also invest in raptor release programs, allowing them to provide a refuge for threatened bird species such as barn owls and kestrals, and providing a natural alternative to trapping or chemical control of rodent populations and seed-loving birds.

The Duncans want to ensure that the role of the farm in the community is a harmonious and necessary one. For example, many waste products created by the community often end up in a landfill. "The farm can make use of many of these products," says Kathleen. Their "Green Waste" program currently makes use of clippings from the parks and recreation departments of area municipalities. "We use the wood chips from the City of Goodyear and SunCor Development on our roads," said Kathleen. This provides a number of benefits - the waste stays out of the landfill, the farm doesn't have to buy gravel or other filler for the roads, and the wood chips keep dust and debris to a minimum.

Arnott puts it this way: "We would really like to work more closely with some of our local municipalities and see if we can't divert more of their green waste to our farm. One of the things we want to do on our farm is to recreate the mutually-beneficial community relationship that farms once had with their communities. All the community benefitted from the farm and it was well-balanced because of the farm. I'd like to have the farm benefit the community in other ways and to become open space for the community. To utilize their waste water and it stays within the community, and you don't always have to be looking at ways outside of your community where you take your trash someplace else. If it goes to a landfill, the landfill is always someplace else, because you don't want it in your own community. We want to take it and use it. That's the way we see ourselves, as designing ourselves into our community."

"I would really like to see our neighbors...if someone were to come in here and want to build homes right around us that would threaten to shut us down... that my whole community would come to my defense and say, ?Do you understand that that's OUR farm, and you can't get rid of our farm because they do THIS for US!' I would love to have that, to be once again, where the farm is an integral part of the community."

The Duncan Family Farms mission statement reads, "We believe that our primary responsibility is to provide our community with clean, healthy, lifegiving food. We also believe that a strong contribution to an improved environment and educational and cultural opportunities are other gifts our farm has to offer."

Kathleen believes the "little farm" is critical to this goal. "It's a chance to show John Q. Public that farmers can be really good stewards of the land," she said. "It's been said that farmers are the original conservationists. They rely on the health of the land and are tied to its health each and every day."

The way in which farmers are stewards of the land is amply demonstrated in the various features of Duncan Family Farms. Since opening in 1992, the little farm has become one of the fastest growing "agri-tourism" sites in the nation, with tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Duncan Family Farms features the U-Pick Gardens and petting zoo, a Country Store, water conservation and earthworm exhibits for the kids, a play yard, Kiddie Kattle Train, hayrides, tractor rides, and an outdoor museum of farm equipment. They host two big festivals each year, the Pumpkin Festival in October and the Corn and Melon Festival in June. The festivals include cooking demonstrations, live music, arts & crafts and special activities for the kids. This year's Pumpkin Festival drew 30,000 attendees.

The U-Pick Gardens provide all organic produce to the general public. With the valley's long growing season, the fruits and vegetables can be planted in cycles, so there's always produce ready for the picking between October and July. For $2 or $5, visitors can purchase a produce bag in the Country Store and pick their own fresh vegetables from the garden or fruit from the many fruit trees which border the garden. Aside from attracting visitors, the U-Pick Gardens serve another purpose. "They're a good research and development area for our organic farming techniques," Kathleen said. "It gives us a good place to try out new methods and see the results before we apply them to the commercial operation." The Duncans are currently transitioning about 80 acres of production each year to organic.

The 15-acre U-Pick Gardens provide a wide variety of produce, including familiar foods like carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, corn, peas and beans, as well as some little known vegetables and salad greens such as tatsoi, mizuna, arugula and frissť. But visitors need not worry if they don't know how to use such "exotic" produce. Dick Eaton, garden manager, is there to answer questions and recommend how to use the produce in various recipes.

Area elementary school benefit from Duncan Family Farms, with field trips visiting the farm jdaily. Field trips consist of more than just riding the train or feeding the goats. They include a tour of the 2,000 acres of fruits and vegetables, a tour of the U-Pick Gardens, treats from the Country Store, and activity and resource materials. Each child gets the opportunity to stop and harvest produce to bring home. Thanks to the southwest climate, planting can be done almost continuously, and there is always a crop ready to be picked. One preschool teacher commented, "We loved the hands-on learning experience. Very few field trips allow children to smell, touch and taste like yours does."

In keeping with the theme that "Farming is Fun," the Duncans recently added a new touch of whimsy to the farm. Along their southern boundary and visible from Interstate 10, is a painting, a cutout of a giant baby - billboard high - wearing Duncan Family Farms coveralls. The baby appears to be sitting in the field and is about to pick up another painting - a life-size tractor. At his feet stands another cutout, also life-size, of Kathleen from the back, dressed as a traditional farm wife, scolding the behemoth babe.

The Duncans continue to seek new and creative ways to both improve the quality of their product and their environment, as well as to become an asset to their community.

"We're learning as we go," said Arnott. "But it's a fun riding; we're learning a lot." He looked through a recent copy of Acres, USA. "I gotta tell ya, though, these guys in Acres - they're good. We're not there yet. We're learning though; we're taking a shot at it."

Catt Foy is a freelance writer living in Buckeye, Arizona with her future husband, two dogs and six cats. A city girl living in the country, she has developed an interest in organic farming and environmentally sound practices of all kinds. For questions or comments, Catt can be contacted at zodiac@uswest.net.

copyright 1998-2005, Catt Foy
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