Organic farming in Arizona: A family business that works for the community

Farm field

By: Sarah Williams, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.

Nestled in between Buckeye and Goodyear, Arizona, is a 1,200-acre certified organic farm specializing in leafy greens and compost. This farm started in Arizona over 30 years ago with Arnott and Kathleen Duncan at the helm. Arnott, a 4th generation farmer, started Duncan Family Farms on just a few hundred acres of land, and has since grown it into a multi-state operation with the mission to responsibly manage and maintain the land.

Duncan Family Farms (DFF) prides itself on being the best stewards of the land possible. They operate on several values including leaving everything better than you found it, providing life-giving food to the entire community, and educating the community using every resource available. These values make DFF a stunning partner for many outlets and distributors across the country. If you’ve eaten a salad mix of leafy greens, no matter where you are located, the chances you have eaten a harvest from DFF are very high.

Back in the farm’s early years, DFF hosted many students to teach them the importance of farming and taking care of the soil. However, the farm sits against Luke Air Force Base and a change in flight patterns meant the farm could no longer host these outreach events. Now, DFF has an intern program in place to share their knowledge of sustainable farming with graduating students.

One of the largest crops DFF grows is baby tender leaf (about 90% of their crops) for salad mixes, supplemented with specialty crops like romaine, kale, cauliflower, and culinary herbs. With a very short cut-to-cool time during harvest, the farm is able to ship out produce usually the same or next day. This allows them to be as efficient as possible without sacrificing quality. Most of the produce is sold under a contract farming style, meaning the harvest is already sold before it is planted to ensure the correct amount is always planted. Currently, DFF operates in Arizona, Oregon, and New York, allowing them to harvest year-round.

Duncan Family Farms keeps soil management top of mind. In each state they farm, they have planted trees around the perimeter to create a windbreak. Windbreaks help filter unwanted objects from being blown onto the farm, like trash and conventional chemical sprays. It also keeps topsoil and produce from blowing away off the farm. DFF practices cover cropping and soil resting during off seasons to restore the soil back to a healthy state, as well as constant soil testing to ensure the required nutrients are always present.

DFF has one of the largest private composting programs in the Southwest. They accept yard waste and farm animal manure from the community and combine it with their own farm byproducts to create a rich and healthy natural fertilizer. They incorporate this into their soil before planting, and they also share it with the local community. The compost facility is split into two sections: a curing yard and a finishing yard. The curing process is a critical part of keeping products food-safe by reducing the harmful pathogens that can be present in compost. After the compost is cured, it is moved to the finishing yard for an extra 9-12 months. This system creates the most nutrient dense compost possible for their produce.

In terms of pest management, DFF utilizes bird abatement, natural pesticides, bio control, and organically approved pesticides. They partner with Falcon Force to keep birds and other small animals from nibbling on the crops through the use of trained falcons. Some natural pesticides used at the farm are oils made from cinnamon, thyme, and chrysanthemum. These deter some pests, and DFF has used bug vacuums and insect netting for more persistent pests.

Marigolds and other plants growing in row under a shade screen.

What is new and upcoming for Duncan Family Farms? Recently they have been trial growing edible flowers, vegetables, and culinary herbs for the local community under the Duncan Family Farms brand. If you are shopping or dining in the Phoenix area, you should be able to easily find the DFF branded items. Working with local chefs and customers lets DFF create special collaborations with current and future trends. Chefs can trial items in their restaurants and provide feedback for future trials.

All their different locations and growing strategies makes DFF a very diverse and resilient farm that can confidently withstand changes in the economy and climate. It was an amazing experience being able to visit Duncan Family Farms and learn about their sustainable farming practices. I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to Patty Emmert, Ryan Tomlin, and the Duncan family for their time and enthusiasm. The future of Arizona farming is in good hands!

This blog is part of a series from the December 2022 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.