DEEP ROOTS: To hear Arnott Duncan discuss the genesis and progression of Duncan Family Farms, you think it all happened by chance. “It’s better to be lucky than good,” he says.
In reality, Arnott is a 4th generation Arizona farmer with deep roots in Arizona’s sandy soil. His father farmed before him and while he exposed Arnott and his brothers to farming, he always believed that if they were to choose the profession they should do it independently. One of Arnott’s brothers currently farms in small lots selling to very high end restaurants.
Arnott fell in love with farming at a very young age and after college and a short stint on the family farm, he set out on his own in 1985, and began farming a few hundred acres of row crops, using conventional farming methods. “I always knew I wanted to be on the farming side of the business,” he said. “I loved working in the outdoors and I loved doing vegetable crops.”
ORGANIC GROWTH: As he tells his story, it is obvious that the Duncan Family Farm grew organically before it started farming organically. One step at a time, Arnott and his wife, Kathleen, built the business to its present size and scope. Today the company grows more than 2,500 acres of specialty crops, primarily organic baby lettuces for processors who provide bagged salads to the retail and foodservice industries. Duncan Family Farms has operations in Central Arizona as well as on the Central Coast in California.
CONNECTING URBAN TO RURAL: Several years after launching the farm, the Duncans decided they wanted to reach out to the community and combine their farming experience with Kathleen’s chosen profession in early childhood education. They decided to open up part of their farm to the public, offering school tours to let kids learn about agriculture and connect with how food is produced. “Kathleen was the brains behind that effort,” Arnott says, “and from the very beginning it was very successful.”
In that very first year, 18,000 school kids toured the farm. And for the next 11 years, the Duncan Family Farms hosted about 30,000 kids per year. They did charge a nominal fee for the tours, but Arnott said the commercial side of the farm, which included festivals also open to the public, always subsidized the tours and educational outreach.
Nonetheless, Arnott looks at that part of the business, which was forced to close in 2002, very fondly and believes it created a great connection to the community. Unfortunately, the Duncan Farm in Arizona is located in close proximity to an Air Force base. After the events of 9/11 in 2001, heightened security required that the farm be closed to the public.
ORGANIC FARMING: It is when talking about the company’s switch to organic farming that Arnott commented about being “lucky rather than good.” In its agro-tourism days when it was leading school tours and hosting farm festivals, the Duncans had a petting zoo on site. Vegetables were cool but what really attracted kids were animals so that became part of the tour. In addition, hay bales were a part of the landscape as they offered both the perfect seat and the perfect ambiance for a farm tour.
One year, an inordinate amount of rain and an innovative idea linked to a mixing of the decaying hay bales and the animal waste and the next thing you knew, Duncan Family Farms had its own composting pile.
“I used the compost on a demonstration garden that we had as part of the farm and was amazed at the fresh produce that we produced. It was beautiful and colorful and robust and much healthier than the conventional garden that was right across the ditch.”
Arnott also realized that he had used about three to four inches of this compost on that plot and to create that much compost, he needed a much better source than a few animals in a petting zoo and a few bales of hay. Subsequently, he found a nearby racetrack that was willing, able and very happy to offload their daily waste (three to four semi-trailers a day) on to the Duncan Family Farm. Still Arnott planned to use that compost on his conventional crops, which is what he was producing at the time.
However, several of his customers noted his steaming compost pile and suggested he grow some organic crops for them. Duncan Family Farms did just that on a piece of virgin land near Interstate 10 in Goodyear, Ariz., and an organic farmer was born.
PRIVATE COMPOSTING: Today the company’s composting efforts remain an excellent connection with the urban population as “we have become a receptacle for green waste in our community. We take about 30,000 tons of waste per year that would otherwise have to go into a landfill. We pride ourselves on being a good neighbor.”
This remains one of the largest privately run composting programs in the Southwest. Duncan Family Farms no longer works with the local racetrack but it does take waste from local dairies, chicken farms, and other sources and turns it into natural fertilizer.
GLEANING OPERATION: The Duncans are also very proud of their gleaning program which benefits local foodbanks as well as offering community service for inmates in the local prison. He said every farm has usable product that it cannot sell either because it is too large, too small or just gets left in the field when the harvest is complete.
Those prisoners donate their time and the Duncans donate the food. Approximately one million pounds of produce is gleaned each year and given to Arizona food banks.
REVERSE MIGRATION TO CALIFORNIA: It is an often heard lament from California farmers that they wish they were in Arizona where regulations are perceived to be less cumbersome and the environment is more business friendly. Yet several years ago, Duncan Family Farms expanded to the Golden State and now has production in the Nipomo area.
“Everyone asks me that question,” said Duncan, about moving to California. “What I’d say is that every place has regulations but California has enough people to enforce those regulations and it is a major challenge just to know what they are. I admit that I don’t always know all the regulations, but I’m learning.”
He said farmers want to comply but the list can be long.
But it is the climate, the soil and overall growing conditions that attracted him to the Nipomo area. It allows Duncan Family Farms to be a year-round producer of the organic vegetables that he grows.
THE NEXT GENERATION: Arnott is not certain that the next generation of his family — which includes an Arnott Duncan IV — will follow in his footsteps. He has two sons that have graduated from college and are currently doing their own thing and another defacto member of the family in college that he and his wife have offered a home to since the beginning of his high school. He calls all three “his boys” and said they do show an interest in the farm and the crops “but I don’t know if they will be inspired to get into this business. My two older sons did not want to do it right after school and I admire that. They are curious about farming so maybe someday they will and that would be pretty cool.”
THE WESTERN GROWERS CONNECTION: Duncan Family Farms joined Western Growers early in its life as a way of being part of the farming community and supporting the work the association does. “I really enjoy the agronomics aspect of farming and I am not really political by nature. But I do understand the political aspects of our industry and it is very important that someone is responding and watching out for us. Western Growers does that better than anybody.”
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