Duncan Family Farms' commitment to sustainable agriculture

Photo of basil growing in greenhouse

By Claire Robertson, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student 

This blog is part of a series from the December Arizona Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students virtually toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff and non-profit leaders. 

As Patty Emmert, Kelsey Neppel, Stephanie Pharris, and Courtney Boyer share an information rich virtual presentation on Duncan Family Farms to the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership cohort, both the impressive breadth of the organization’s production and intentional commitment to sustainable agriculture become rapidly apparent. The fact that the presentation is conducted by four women in agriculture lends another unique layer to the presentation and operation.

Originally established in Goodyear, Arizona in 1985 by Arnott Duncan, a fourth-generation farmer, and his wife Kathleen, Duncan Family Farms’ trajectory and success demonstrate what is possible when thoughtful cultivation, dedication to sustainable practices, and life’s unexpected opportunities come together.

Seeing the disconnect between people and their food sources as well as the growing negative reputation of agricultural production, Arnott and Kathleen started an educational program on their farm, opening their doors to community members to educate people about where their food comes from and demonstrate the benefits and innovations in farm operations.

Originally growing a few hundred acres of conventional crops, Duncan Family Farms transitioned to organic production of baby leaf lettuces and greens in part thanks to an organic grower who spotted the farm from I-10 and stopped for a conversation. Certified organic, the farm now produces tender leaf lettuces and greens and delivers to some of the largest value-added distributors in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. 

A seasonal grower until eight years ago, Duncan Family Farms sought to be a year-round supplier closer to its customers across the country, investing in more regional food supply systems and adjusting to climate changes in Arizona. Duncan Family Farms now operates in four states, growing in Arizona from October to April, the central coast of California from April to June, and Oregon and New York (where operations are temporarily on hold) from June to September.

Hearing the range of products, growing seasons, and locations, you, like me, may wonder, how are they getting it all done? To deliver for its customers and accommodate a year-round growing season across four states, planning and real time data are essential to the farms’ successful operations. With growing times for most products of 30 to 40 days—some as short as 21—there is little time to make adjustments. Duncan Family Farms uses Trimble Agriculture, an online and mobile farm management software designed to make it easy for their team to capture data from the field such as weather and crop performance, analyze that data, assess variance, and get ahead of issues or make adjustments in the future. 

Sustainable practices are at the core of how the farms operate. The farms’ compost program, initially another product of life’s unexpected opportunities, started during the farm’s educational programming years as hay bales used for seating began to sprout and decay. The hay was left to decompose over the summer and was then used on the fields. That winter the crops demonstrated a significant quality improvement and thus was born an intentional composting operation. The farms’ composting program now includes waste from local dairies, feedlots, and other producers in the community as well as tree trimmings, grass, and wood chips from local municipalities. 

While sustainable practices like composting and cover crops have long been part of the farms’ operations making Duncan Family Farms a recognized leader in safe, sustainable farming practices, the organization recently began efforts to formalize its sustainability practices and implement more robust measurement. The farm worked with Measure to Improve to conduct an assessment including soil management and conservation, water management, fertilizer management, crop protection and Integrated Pest Management, and ecosystem biodiversity. Based on the assessment, Duncan Family Farms is focusing on soil and carbon sequestration related to its composting operation, initially tackling water efficiency—a key performance indicator for the soil initiative and a critical issue for operations in Arizona and California. In addition to the water use efficiency initiative, as Duncan Family Farms moves into 2021, it continues to deepen its intentional sustainability and conservation efforts by pursuing a Sustainably Grown Certificate and Zero Waste Certification. 

On behalf of the entire ASU Food Policy and Sustainability Cohort, I would like to extend our sincere appreciation to Patty, Kelsey, Stephanie, Courtney, and Duncan Family Farms for giving us the opportunity to “visit” and learn more about your amazing operations. 

All pictures provided by Duncan Family Farms.