May 31, 2016
Organic growth drives evolution of fourth-generation farm
Ana Olvera

Arnott Duncan is a fourth-generation Arizona vegetable grower who left his family’s farm in 1985 and began growing a few hundred acres of conventionally grown row crops.

“It seemed as though the general mix of crops I was growing back in the ’80s – cotton and grains – became more of a global competition instead of for domestic purposes,” said Duncan, who as co-founder and CEO of Duncan Family Farms now leads a multi-regional growing endeavor of more than 7,000 acres of certified organic produce with more than 400 employees. “Back then, there was not much potential for them. The specialty vegetable industry seemed like it had better economic potential.”

Regardless of his crops of choice, Duncan knew “ever since I was a little kid I enjoyed going to the farm.”

He went to school with an agriculture and plant genetics mindset, and upon graduation, “I moved pretty quickly out to the family farm. And once a foundation was built, my wife Kathleen and I moved in the direction of wanting a farm of our own.”

Arnott Duncan said moving into California production enabled Duncan Family Farms to meet customer demand. Photos: Duncan Family Farms
Arnott Duncan said moving into California production enabled Duncan Family Farms to meet customer demand. Photos: Duncan Family Farms

The operation quickly settled into a business that has always dealt with water concerns in the desert, labor challenges and the opportunity to grow organically.

“We still deal with all three challenges – or opportunities – and learning how to deal with or take advantage of each of those,” he said.

In the sandy soils of the arid regions of Arizona, technological advancements have moved to the forefront in the commercial vegetable industry.

“The use of sprinklers, drip irrigation and training of our guys so there is a better decision making process from start to finish, that is probably the greatest advantage in the utilization of technology.”

High-tech boost

Duncan said more technology companies are interested in introducing and modifying technology for the agriculture industry.

“It’s been kind of an exponential learning curve. I don’t see that as being any different from any other industry. It’s based on needs. One of the greatest challenges right now is labor.”

Duncan Family Farms used H-2A labor for the first time last year, after getting to a point of not having enough workers and being forced to “having crops we weren’t able to harvest and ending up turning them over. With the cost of organic production, you can’t do much of that. We’re really pleased with it, but it needs to be streamlined. There will be delays because the government isn’t prepared yet for the amount of the demand. When you consider the amount of paperwork required, they are falling behind.

“We’re looking for all types of technology, not necessarily to decrease the number of people on the farm or have a decrease in payroll and how the money is spent, but we’ve generated a higher amount of money on more technically aligned individuals to maintain and sustain the technology in which we’ve invested,” he said.

The business is working with a couple of companies in Europe who are manufacturing robotics-type equipment for commercial vegetable farm use.

“They seem to have a number of those products in Europe that they’ve developed earlier than us,” he said. “Certainly, robotic technology allows us to take a step forward.”

In 1992, Duncan and his wife decided they wanted to reach out to the community by bridging the gap between urban and rural life. They began by offering educational tours for school groups and establishing a seasonal produce stand. During its first year, 18,000 students visited the farm. In the second year, the number of students swelled to 30,000.

During its 11-year run, Duncan Family Farms became a popular recreational and educational destination. Duncan said it was one of the fastest-growing agritourism sites in the country for many years. But due to a change in flight activity at the nearby Air Force base, the agritourism program had to cease.

Up until 2010, Duncan Family Farms was a seasonal grower in Goodyear, Arizona. It was then that the company purchased additional ground in California to expand operations and provide customers with a year- round supply of produce.

The company grows organic baby leaf items, including several varieties of lettuce and greens (red and green oaks, red and green romaine, red and green leaf, lolla rosa, tango, mizuna, red chard, green chard, tatsoi, baby kale, arugula and spinach).

Duncan said moving into the California market enabled Duncan Family Farms to meet the year-round demands of its customers and expand its portfolio of produce.

The operation also added a specialty crop program that included organic kales, chards, beets, romaine hearts and herbs. The additional ground in California allowed the company to grow its products in summer, while maintaining its agronomic practice of resting the ground and rebuilding the soil in the offseason, Duncan said. Additional ground also provides geographic diversity, which allows the business to expand its portfolio of produce.

The operations are located in central Arizona and the Imperial Valley, and on the Central Coast and its inland valleys in California. The geographic diversity of these organically certified growing locations positions Duncan Family Farms as one of the leading organic growers in the United States, he said. Its products are shipped across North America, into Canada and to the United Kingdom.

“It was seasonal in Arizona, but at that time I just wanted to spend as much time with family as possible as the kids grew up,” he said. “When they got into college it became easier for me to spend time away from home, so we started in California. We go year round and continue to listen to our customers and follow and meet their needs as much as possible. It’s shaped how we grow and where we expand to.”

Duncan Family Farms grows organic baby leaf items, including several varieties of lettuce and greens.
Duncan Family Farms grows organic baby leaf items, including several varieties of lettuce and greens.

Move to organic

Why did Duncan Family Farms become a full-fledged organic vegetable operation as early as 1994?

“I wish I could say it was an ingenious scheme of some sort, but I had always had an interest in pest management programs. We were open to the public for 10 or 11 years, and you don’t do pesticides at the time when you’re having kids visiting the farm every day. (Going organic) was the result of a lot of unique circumstances coming together, including our composting program and working to create small organic fields, and we grew from that.

“I’ve really enjoyed farming organically and I think you really learn how to farm going from traditional to organic. It’s a humbling experience. I think you became a much better farmer when you grow organically.”

In his more than 30 years working as an independent farm operator, would Duncan have done anything different?

“Looking back, I would have been a better employer earlier on,” he said. “One of the many things I’m really proud of is the culture of our company and what we’re trying to create.

“It’s all about learning – putting better processes in place – in training, how we hire, the people we get to work with. We learn and get better. I wish I could have sort of jumped ahead on the learning curve and be that much further ahead today.”

Experienced leadership

Earlier this year, Duncan Family Farms promoted two of its long-time employees: Will Feliz as president and Pete Guerrero as vice president of operations.

Feliz spent his entire 27-year career in the produce industry working for small, mid- and Fortune 500- size companies, including his most recent role as chief operating officer of Duncan Family Farms. As president, he focuses on guiding the strategic plan, developing new business channels and exemplifying the company’s defining values to employees, customers and stakeholders.

Guerrero began as a food safety manager and worked up to director of supply chain and procurement over an eight-year span with Duncan Family Farms. He played a critical role in strengthening the food safety program, a key part of the company’s culture and process, Duncan said. Guerrero is responsible for managing daily operations of growing locations in Arizona and California.

“We moved them up because definitely their level of contributions has been fantastic,” Duncan said. “It was a formalization of the contributions they’ve made and a recognition of that.”

Duncan has a son who might consider following in his footsteps.

“It would be great if he chose to stay in the business. We’ll see how it goes. I’m certainly willing to get out of his way any time.”

Duncan sees “incredible opportunities” in the commercial vegetable industry going forward.

“The locally grown fresh is something that’s not just a trend – it’s something that is important to buyers,” he said. “Because of that, the fresh fruit and vegetable industry creates an incredible opportunity, even if the pressure from imports makes itself more evident. I see an opportunity here regionally, with a greater significance on locally grown. There’s a lot of emphasis on water quality – food-safe water, the availability of labor and regional production of anything applicable to that area. It’s an expanding opportunity.

“I do see farms of scale, large and small, working together and creating opportunity for each other,” Duncan said.

— Gary Pullano, associate editor

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