2,500 Acre Organic Farm in Arizona Rooted in Compost and Community Thrives on Social Responsibility
February 4, 2013 | Pamela Ellgen
The principles of organic farming permeate every aspect of Duncan Family Farms from the seeds they plant in the ground to those they sow in the local community.
“We believe that the primary responsibility of Duncan Family Farms is to produce clean, healthy, life-giving food,” says founder and self-proclaimed “dirt nerd” Arnott Duncan. “We are also committed to making a strong contribution to an improved environment and to giving back to our community.”
Arnott and his wife Kathleen started the farm over two decades ago, and that vision has remained the cornerstone of their operation since the very beginning.
Today, the farm sits on over 5000 acres of primarily organic vegetables and is located about 25 miles west of Phoenix, Arizona. It is a producer of leafy greens and supplies many of the nation’s largest value-added processors of organic produce .
Duncan Farm’s organic program is rooted in its composting operation. The farm partners with local municipalities to divert green waste from golf courses, greenbelts and other common areas. It’s a win-win scenario, says Patty Emmert, the farm’s specialty crop manager. From an economic standpoint, it’s less expensive than buying organic compost. “More importantly, you’re diverting from landfills, which supports both the environment and the local community,” she adds.
They also bring in raw material from horse racing tracks and local dairies. However, the farm ensures no cross contamination occurs with both an unfinished and a finished yard.
In 1993, Duncan partnered with the Arizona Association of Food Banks and Clarke Skeans to create the Statewide Arizona Gleaning Project. Instead of tilling un-harvested produce back into the ground, the program utilized prison labor to glean excess food and distributed it through local food banks.
“Sometimes you have food left in the fields for cosmetic reasons, because volumes were fantastic or because excess was grown, but it’s still perfectly good produce,” Emmert explains. “It’s about providing opportunity and getting healthy food into the hands of people who don’t have access to it.”
Since its inception, the Gleaning Project has rescued, transported and distributed more than 888 million pounds of food, according to the Association of Arizona Food Banks.
When people think of local farms, they typically think small. And, though Duncan Family Farms does distribute locally through farmer’s markets and CSA programs, it is in a unique position given its size.
“You can’t grow everything, everywhere, all the time,” Emmert says. “So you still need to have that regional and national distribution. We just need to be smarter about how we do that.”
Being smarter involves growing and aggregating product locally whenever possible and developing regional relationships for distribution when it’s not, as is the case with many of Duncan Family Farm’s specialty vegetable clients throughout the western United States.
Emmert sits on the Farm to School advisory commission which works to address the challenges of moving local food into schools, to ensure that all people have access to healthy food.
“It’s a two-way street,” she says. “It’s not just the farmers changing to meet the needs of the system. It’s also the system trying to make these farmers more successful. They need to be paid fairly and to know how much they need to grow.”
The biggest obstacle facing farmers in the farm to school initiative is scale, growing enough to support the schools. That’s where aggregation comes in. With the right systems in place, farmers can bring their produce to an aggregation center where it is washed, trimmed and packaged with uniformity and food safety compliance.
“It’s difficult to take field-packed items directly into schools because our school cafeterias are no longer kitchens. They’re heat and serve,” Emmert says. “So there has to be a processing component in place. And, we are working to create those systems.”
Although they are still at the early stages of development, she believes that as more and more solutions are brought to the table, more opportunities to get fresh produce into the schools will emerge.
Given the current economic and social climate, more and more consumers are choosing to invest in socially responsible companies. “They have seen the endless consumption, the more, more, more,” Emmert says. “Now they’re asking, ‘Who are the companies that are socially responsible? That’s where I’m going to spend my dollars.’”
And, Duncan Family Farms began answering that question long before it became fashionable. Since the beginning, it has considered itself a triple bottom line company, with three pillars of equal importance: being good stewards of the environment, taking care of the community and seeking a profit.
It’s good for the planet and, if Duncan’s profitability says anything, it’s good for the bottom line.
Correction: The title originally noted that Duncan Family Farms had 5,000 acres in Arizona. In fact, they are farming 2,500 acres in Arizona and another 2,500 acres in California.