Iowa Public Television


Duncan Family Farms

posted on January 18, 2002

The start time for debate to begin anew on the next farm bill remains clouded in a political haze. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle says he believes the Senate will get to work on the bill early in 2002. House Agriculture Committee ranking member Charles Stenholm doesn't see further action until the spring. Montana Republican Conrad Burns says April. Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell says March. Regardless, the director of the Office of Management and Budget says there will be adequate funding for agriculture programs.

That's of little consolation to farm interests waiting for the new farm law. USDA says it will wait until Congress is done with the farm bill before setting loan rates for 2002 crops. With those rates expected to decrease by undetermined amounts, critics claim any delay in farm bill debate leaves farmers in the dark as planting season nears.

Indeed, the quest for sustainability on the farm has become more and more reliant on government assistance. But there are other methods. A case in point, as producer John Nichols found, is a thriving Arizona farm that's bolstering its sustainability through tourism.


Duncan Family Farms

Take a drive in rural Arizona and you're likely to see a big desert, some big farms and one very big baby. The "more-than-life-size" child cheerfully guides visitors to Duncan Family Farms… A unique agricultural and educational center about 30 miles west of Phoenix.

The operation plays host to thousands of students annually who come to learn about life down on the farm.

Kathleen Duncan: "We generally have about twenty thousand students out each season. Our school tours, we do them in October and November and then again in March, April, May and during that five-month period it's about twenty thousand students and probably another close to ten thousand teachers and parents, chaperones that come along with them."

Duncan Family Farms was created 10 years ago by the husband/wife team of Arnott and Kathleen Duncan.

While Kathleen refers to herself as a transplanted urbanite, Arnott's roots run deep in the sandy soils of Arizona. The fourth generation grower is glad to be a farmer.

Arnott Duncan: "It's what is fun to me. I'm one of those guys that when I wake up in the morning I enjoy going to work. I enjoy farming. I enjoy the challenge of it. It's very rewarding to me."

Prior to founding Duncan Family Farms, Kathleen also enjoyed a rewarding career as an educational consultant for the State of Arizona.

But she noticed a couple of disturbing trends. Her students were, for the most part, a generation removed from agriculture, having no relationship with those who grew their food.

The couple combined their careers in an effort to rebuild the connection and to educate others on the value of farmers.

Kathleen Duncan: "Modern farms and farmers have gone from being good guys that grow our food and feed us to these bad guys that are hogging all the water and killing us with chemicals and so we thought well, you know, we can't probably change that over night but if one family at a time, one class at a time, one group of kids at a time we could let them come out, feel comfortable, see where their food comes from them, ask questions. and it's really, really expanded. But the basic gist of the field trip hasn't changed. That's the most important part is when the kids get out in one of our fields and harvest a bag of that crop to take home. And so that's really still the most important part of the tour to us I believe."

Kelly McGuire: "We don't put anything out that they can't touch. We want them to experience and feel and remember everything because that's how most people learn."

While Duncan Family Farms is well known, locally, for its educational tours, it is very much a working farm which produces a wide variety of crops.

Arnott Duncan claims the educational side is just one more way of diversifying the operation in hopes of enhancing its sustainability.

Duncan Arnott: "This is a farm that wants to stay here. This is a farm that's looking for any way possible to move forward successfully, sustaining ourselves both emotionally and economically and trying to find a balance in our lives in doing so and trying to find a balance in our community in doing so."

Dr. John Ikerd: "When you talk to farmers that are involved in the sustainable movement, ask them about these questions and you will find, almost invariably, that family, community, those things are important"

Dr. John Ikerd is a rural economist, with more than 40 years experience examining trends in farm country.

He claims progressive rural operations, that consider themselves part of a larger community, are sustainable.

Dr. John Ikerd: "They come in and say, "we'll do it if it's good for the family, if it's good for the community, it it's good for the land and if it's good for us economically." That's the way I define a sustainable farmer. It's a farmer that is asking those questions because that will move them in the direction of having a more sustainable system. "

Duncan Family Farms combines elements of traditional farming with agri-tourism in an effort to be sustainable.

The backbone of the farm is a 2,000-acre vegetable operation with annual sales in excess of four million dollars.

Over the past 10 years, more than 200,000 children have visited the farm on school tours.

And the Autumn Pumpkin Festival attracts 40,000 people annually.

Arnott Duncan: "We want our community to say that's our farm and if someone wants to come in and try to zone us out, if they want to do anything that would negatively impact our farm, we would really like our community to come forward and say," that's our farm. You can't do that to our farm."

It's unlikely that Duncan Family Farms will be rezoned anytime soon, in part, because of its neighbors. Just south of the operation lies one of Arizona's State Prisons.

And while many developers are less than enthusiastic about having convicts next door, the Duncans claim the prisoners help them and the larger community at the same time.

Duncan Arnott: "We love working with and near the prison. In addition to just being good neighbors as far as working with and near the prison on our vegetable farm when we get done harvesting a crop there are always a certain percentage of that crop that is available to be gleaned. The prisoners come out and glean this product, we've been able to donate a little over a million pounds a year just off of our small farm. It's a wonderful program."

Another neighbor enjoying a symbiotic relationship with the farm passes by in a bit of a hurry.

Aircraft from nearby Luke Air Force Base routinely fly directly overhead of Duncan Family Farms. While the jets can be a bit distracting, the Duncans claim the F-16's also are a weapon in the war against urban sprawl.

Kathleen Duncan: "We're not going to stop the development, we know that. The houses are coming, the development is coming around us and you know, and because it's a unique situation here with the prison and the Air Force Base we have some unique opportunities that we think to be the farm that stays, that becomes part of the community, that becomes an amenity for those in the community. "

With a year-round staff of nearly 100 people, the Duncan's vegetable operation grosses anywhere from four to six million dollars annually.

At five dollars per student, sales on the agri-tourism side are more modest. In fact, the Duncan's ideal is to break even on their educational activities.

Kathleen Duncan: "The education is very important to us. It is not something we ever look at as a profit center. That's real important to us because it's important that they be accessible and that they are affordable and that we keep them priced as low as we possibly can without going into the hole."

Nevertheless, money is so tight in some school districts that five dollars per student is out of reach. But the couple claims they never turn a student away.

Despite its limited potential for profit, It's unlikely the Duncans will abandon their school tours anytime soon.

Arnott Duncan: "You know, when you're walking around with the tours and you see the tour guides and you watch the children, these kids are having a ball. And that aspect of it is just so, so rewarding."

For Market to Market, I'm John Nichols.


Tags: agriculture Arizona education farms news students