The Farm Side

Vegging out at the Valley's hippest hoe shebang!

Ma and Pa Kettle, they ain't.

And forget any resemblance to those "American Gothic" sourpussed sod-busters, too.

In fact, better check all those citified notions about farm life when you enter Kathleen and Arnott Duncan's pick-it-yourself veggie patch and petting zoo in Goodyear. Part of an actual organic farm providing produce for gourmet grocery stores and restaurants, the 200-acre agrarian attraction is closer to Green Acres or Pee-wee's Playhouse than anything you're ever going to find in The Farmers' Almanac.

Paolo Vescia

Can there be any other vegetable growers in the world who'd advertise their wares by erecting a puzzling freeway-side tableau in a vacant field featuring a plywood cutout of a giant baby? The titanic tot, all 22 feet of it, gleefully terrorizes a couple of scaled-down farm hands on tractors. Nearby, the colossal kid's aproned mom, frying pan in hand, looks up in maternal frustration.

Now celebrating its first birthday, the Duncans' Brobdingnagian brain child is not only an I-10 icon but a roadside mystery as well. During a recent zoom past the befuddling landmark, a carful of California-bound motorists incorrectly theorized that the baby was (a) a teaser ad from a playful housing developer, (b) an art project constructed by a hipster land baron, or (c) the work of a rural Dr. Moreau, a weird lure somehow intended to entice victims into his farmhouse of genetic horrors.

Assuming that anyone had been sharp-eyed enough to notice that the Oshkosh B'Gosh label on the toddler's overalls has been replaced with the Duncan Family Farms logo (admittedly an impossible feat at 80 mph), baffled motorists still wonder: In the agricultural scheme of things, what's a mammoth toddler got to do with the price of tomatoes?

To use a bit of hackneyed barnyard vernacular that's almost certainly never been uttered around the Duncan spread except, perhaps, in jest -- not a durn thing.

"It's not a billboard; it's just for fun," explains owner Arnott Duncan, a handsome guy who, like his wife, Kathleen, looks more like a J. Crew model than someone you'd see proudly hauling a foil-covered casserole into a grange meeting.

"Everyone's way too serious these days," volunteers Kathleen, a boundlessly energetic woman who might pass for an overly vivacious teenage camp counselor. "People are driving along, and when they see this huge baby picking up a tractor, it brightens up their day for a few seconds."

A fourth-generation Arizona farmer, Arnott Duncan reports that the couple had originally hoped to erect the baby in a field directly across the freeway, just south of its current home right before the Cotton Road exit. But for one reason or another, negotiations with the owner of that tract of land fell through.

"It would have been a lot funnier," explains Arnott with a snicker. "See, they've always got huge compost heaps over there, and to see this baby sitting among all these piles, well, you get the idea."

Not that the Duncans need tons of baby manure to enrich their share of God's Little Acre. Thanks to the couple's fertile imagination, their eight-year-old farmer-for-a-day operation is anything but your standard garden-variety tourist attraction.

Located nearly three miles north of the Cotton Road exit on Indian School Road, the farm is hard to miss. Perched atop the gift shop roof are a couple more giant cutouts, a pair of Mayberryesque-looking lads messily munching down on freshly baked pie. Around the corner is a menacing, building-size chicken, a girl in overalls dangling from its plywood beak. The large but incredibly lifelike-looking hen is yet another cutout, one of nearly a dozen plywood whimsies the Duncans commissioned from a northern California artist. (See Related Story.)

"Kids don't bother reading signs," says Duncan, who explains that the perilous-looking pecker is a "fun" way to alert kids to keep their fingers out of the chicken coop. Ditto the unfortunate plywood lass near the petting zoo who's on the receiving end of the horns of an oversize goat. And if they don't get the message? Duncan shrugs, "You've gotta admit, they're kinda neat to look at."

The Duncans leased a 1,000-acre spread in the late '80s. Called Sunfresh Farm, the operation has since doubled its acreage and is one of the state's few privately held farms of its size, producing niche fruit and vegetables large corporations don't find profitable. When the couple started a family several years later (their sons, now 9 and 11, are the models for the rooftop Opies), Kathleen, a former social worker, decided to open the farm to field trips.

Sounding like a considerably more grounded version of Eva Gabor's Hooterville farm frau, she admits: "I grew up in the Bay Area, and the last place I ever expected to wind up was on a farm. Farming is just not cool -- or so most people think."

Now unable to imagine doing anything else, she began organizing modest tours for nearby school children, a small-scale hobby she subsidized by selling fresh vegetables from her produce stand.

One thing led to another and, seven years later, the informal field trips have evolved into something approaching a small-scale theme park as it might have been envisioned by The Real McCoys on loco weed. Young visitors can swoop down a slide with baby goats, take a tractor ride and marvel at old farm machinery. If all goes according to plan, they'll soon be able to wander through a walk-through worm farm.

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