Duncan Family Farms: From feeding people to feeding the soil

By Ami Freeberg, ASU Food Systems graduate student. 

On December 7, the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership students visited Duncan Family Farms during a week-long immersive exploring farms, ranches, food processors, and gardens around Arizona. 

If you buy organic salad mixes from the grocery store, chances are good that you have eaten greens grown by Duncan Family Farms. As one of the leading certified organic farms in the country, Duncan Family Farms has expanded from their headquarters in Goodyear, Arizona to grow in California, Oregon, and New York to ensure a year-round supply of greens. However, they didn’t start as a multi-region salad green farm. Arnott Duncan is a 4th generation Arizona farmer with roots in the region’s standard commodity crops of cotton and alfalfa. In 1985, he left his family’s farm to grow on his own, starting off with a few hundred acres of row crops. By 1992, Arnott and his wife Kathleen wanted to expand their impact through education so they turned part of their farm into a destination for students to learn about agriculture and rural life, hosting 40,000 kids each year. 

By this point, Arnott had transitioned the farm to vegetable production and was successfully growing vegetables conventionally, but he hated it. Having young people out on the farm made him think about the impact of the chemical fertilizers and pesticides they were using on the nearby fields. He couldn’t spray when kids were visiting and he never used chemicals in the agritourism area. Arnott told us, “I couldn’t smell the soil, there was no life in it. The soil was only holding the plants in place so they didn’t blow away.” Since then, Duncan Family Farm has been working to bring life back to the soil to nourish the plants and create a balanced ecosystem. The farm became Certified Organic in 1994 and was recently verified as Certified Sustainably Grown, which addresses social justice and environmental sustainability attributes. Unfortunately, after 11 years they had to stop hosting visitors due to a change in flight traffic patterns at the nearby air force base, but the young visitors had a lasting impact on the operations of Duncan Family Farms. 

A critical part of the farms’ production is compost, which they discovered by accident. Arnott shared the story of how they piled up old straw bales at their agritourism site to get them out of the way, then added waste from cleaning out the animal areas. They ended up needing to move this pile a couple times, unintentionally creating beautiful, nutrient rich compost. Once again, they needed to clear the area where the compost was sitting, so they spread it on beds in the demonstration area garden and the plants thrived. Today they operate the largest private composting facility in the Southwest, working with municipalities, dairies, horse farms, and businesses to collect green waste to divert from the landfill and create their own natural fertilizer. They’re working to set up on-site composting facilities at each of their farm locations to create a biologically diverse product to feed the soil at the scale and quality they need. 

Lettuce and leafy salad greens are the bread and butter of Duncan Family Farms, but they are also working on research and development of new crops to add to their production. Arnott wants to add more nutrient density and flavor into the mix. Our group met Lauren who is currently leading the research and development projects, working with plant breeders to select for flavor and experiment with crops that are attractive to customers in new ways. These products are currently being marketed directly to consumers and retailers under the Duncan Family Farms brand, rather than sold to their wholesale buyers. 

Visiting Duncan Family Farms made me think about the scale of food production – this operation of 8,000 acres across the country is on the large side of organic greens production but small compared to conventional greens production across the state and country. A theme that surfaced throughout the week of farm tours was that the quality of a farm’s management is more important than its size. Any scale from a small urban farm to a giant dairy farm can be managed well or poorly with respect to environmental, economic, and social sustainability. Duncan Family Farms seems to be finding a balance on these three pillars of sustainability in their operation, at least for the time being. 

This leads to another takeaway from the visit – how will climate change impact where and how we can grow food in the future? Arnott talked about growing greens where other people aren’t growing them as a way to maintain a year-round supply for his buyers, as well as a safeguard against changing weather and pressures of disease or pest outbreaks. This diversification of growing regions is an important step towards economic sustainability of the business. I think the work with breeding and research is another important step to diversifying production as a way to continue feeding people in a changing climate. 

This blog is part of a series from the December 2021 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.