2000s Archive

The Next Family Farm

Originally Published September 2000
As farms and people fight for open spaces, Arnott and Kathleen Duncan are calling for a truce.

Arnott and Kathleen Duncan can see the future. Standing at a corner of their 2,000-acre farm in Goodyear, Arizona, 17 miles from downtown Phoenix, they point to the clusters of rooftops in the distance. The suburbs are coming.

But this is not a sad farmer story. The Duncans look out at those rooftops and see opportunity. Let the big guys with their 50,000 acres of year-round crops have the bulk of the market. Some of the people in those houses may want to buy directly from the Duncans; some of them will insist on organic produce, which the Duncans grow on nearly 20 percent of their fields. And if a few contract-farming jobs come their way, all the better. Anything to stay in the business of farming.

“I love farming,” says Arnott, who grew up in Phoenix but went to work on his family’s farm after school and on weekends. “It’s a rush for me.”

Not everyone feels the same way. Some of the Duncans’ newest neighbors see farms as water-stealing, pesticide-ridden, smelly, dusty places that should be kept away from proper homes with manicured lawns. The Duncans’ response? A kiddie cattle train.

“We opened our farm to the public,” says Kathleen, “because most people have no idea what farmers do. Even city people used to have an aunt or an uncle or a grandpa to visit on a farm, but all that’s changed.”

And so from the vast acreage of their largely wholesale fruit and vegetable property, Sunfresh Farms, the Duncans have carved the 40-acre Duncan Family Farms, where schoolkids learn what it feels like to harvest a carrot, families hold birthday parties, and the people of Goodyear and beyond gather for the Duncans’ popular Pumpkin Festival (40,000 attended over three weekends last year). They also have wagon rides, a bakery and small market, a U-pick garden, a petting zoo, and, yes, a cattle train ride that toddlers love.

To the Duncans this is not just farming as entertainment. This is about education. “I’d like people to come out here and say, ‘Wow, maybe it’d be nice to have a farm next door instead of a paved parking lot,’ ” explains Arnott. “We’re trying to design our farm into the community so that, as it grows up around us, we become the community’s farm.”

The public tours, created by Kathleen (once an early-education consultant), are only a small part of this plan. “We’re looking at the long term to see how we can stay where we are instead of picking up and moving to some other location when the land fills in,” says Arnott. “We can have windbreaks to create biological buffers, we can process green municipal waste as compost to decrease the amount of solid waste going into landfills, and we can use effluent water to irrigate our crops.”

The way the Duncans figure things, the land they lease to farm may shrink to something like 200 acres in the next 10 to 20 years. And they know that when that happens, they will need to run their farm very differently than the way they do now.

“This is just guessing,” says Arnott, “but in our next life I think our farm is going to be completely organic because we’ll be farming so intensively—we’ll have to work the farms every day. We’ll need two, three, even four crops up per season. We won’t have time to direct-seed—instead, a greenhouse will produce transplants that will go into the ground 40 to 60 days old, well into the usual growing season. Things may even get as wild as, say, trellising melons, which might grow on an 80-inch bed now, but could take up just 40 inches.”

What about the possibility that there won’t be even 200 acres left for the Duncans to lease? They are counting on the fact that the Arizona State Prison in nearby Perryville will always need some sort of open space between it and housing tracts. Why not a farm as a comfort zone?

And after years of leasing all of their farmland, the Duncans have purchased 40 acres—the “corner,” as they call it. The seller, in a fine twist of farm fate, was a developer who, as a condition of the sale, required the Duncans to continue their public activities on the land for a set number of years. “We’re an amenity to their master plan,” says Arnott. Which is just fine with him.

“I’m pretty lucky,” he finally says. “Every evening I get to see the sun going down behind the mountains and it’s absolutely gorgeous with the light on the vegetables. Often, I drive home and think: I get to do what I love to do with the person I love; my family’s involved, my friends are involved. I really have it perfect out here.”

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