By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Now if you'll all kindly step over here to the maze through a cornfield planted in the shape of the state of Arizona . . .
Happy Meals do not grow on trees.
Although this food-chain factoid hardly warrants a Department of Agriculture bulletin, Kathleen Duncan says it still comes as news to many of the 25,000 suburban grade schoolers who traipse through the farm annually.
"A lot of these kids don't have a clue," says Kathleen Duncan. After years of asking busloads of children where their food comes from, she's long since grown accustomed to the inevitable singsong chorus of "The grocery store!" But she's still shaking her head over one of the farm's first field-trippers, a Spin 'n' Say-challenged youngster who jumped off the bus, made a beeline for a potbellied pig, then shouted "Look, at the cow!" Dazed by the alien landscape, younger children frequently stagger out of towering crops looking like something from Children of the Corn.
No wonder, then, that farm guides routinely ask, "How many of you have eaten McDonald's Chicken McNuggets?" before leading young visitors to the hen house. Many reportedly stare in disbelief, unable to comprehend that the clucking, egg-laying birds in front of them are actually fast-food poultry treats of the future, biding their time until they're deboned, breaded, deep-fried, then dunked in sweet 'n' sour sauce.
But Kathleen Duncan is the first to admit that she's learned a lot from the city folk, too.
One of her earliest lessons? "We quickly learned that when people go to a farm, they expect to see animals," she says. "When we began doing this, I'd always explain that since we were vegetable farmers, there were no animals."
Finally bowing to pressure, she assembled a petting zoo from local 4H-ers who'd outgrown their hobbies. (This is not to suggest that the Duncans are also running a home for unwanted pets, a fact that was lost on the surly donor who, despite protestations, deposited a huge hog on the property before peeling out in his van. Having no place for the porker, described by its former owner as being "mean as hell," the Duncans had no choice but to deliver the oinker to a nearby meat-packing plant.)
But as demand for the tours grew, the Duncans' bank account shrank.
"It eventually dawned on us that we were essentially running a free park," says Kathleen Duncan. To defray costs, the couple added a gift shop and a bakery and began charging admission. (The fee is currently $3 a person, although no child on an organized school tour is denied entry if unable to pay.) For an additional price, visitors can roam through a 20-acre mini-farm and pick organically grown veggies. While crops vary from season to season, last month's harvest included beets, carrots, green onions, various salad greens, radishes and snow peas. Fee for the pick-it-yourself operation is $6 per burlap bag, regardless of the combination of vegetables picked.
"Now that was an education," says Kathleen Duncan of the lengthy trial-and-error strategies that preceded the current pricing policy. Earlier attempts at selling by the pound were reportedly not only wasteful, but far more work-intensive for the staff.
"A family would go out there to pick, say, carrots," she explains. "Suddenly they'd realize they had way more carrots than they could ever eat, so they'd leave most of them out in the field. Then they'd move on to the tomatoes -- where they'd do the same thing all over again." And don't even get her started on the foreign visitor who, thinking she was picking cucumbers, completely denuded two rows of unripe watermelon.
During a Saturday afternoon visit to the pick-it-yourself plots last month, it appears that the per-bag policy hasn't curbed the waste problem one iota. Thanks to harvest-happy visitors like the kid who was pulling green onions and baby carrots out of the ground almost as fast as he could toss his muddy pickings into the air, the once neatly arranged rows of veggies look like the aftermath of a food fight in an alfresco salad bar. Many of his adult counterparts aren't much different, picking and discarding half a dozen or so root vegetables before finding one that measures up to local supermarket standards.
Like customer, like wholesaler.
"There's so much waste in vegetable production, it's ridiculous," says Kathleen Duncan. "If something isn't cosmetically perfect, the buyer won't take it. Even though it doesn't affect the taste one bit, if the denting on a cantaloupe is a little bit funky, we can't sell it. In our culture, everything has to look perfect or no one will buy it."
Another big waste factor? The occasional downward market swings that have forced the couple to let entire crops rot in the fields rather than spend the additional money to harvest produce they'd wind up selling at a loss.
"It was driving us crazy," continues Kathleen Duncan. "Here was all this wonderful produce going to waste just because we had no one to harvest it."
A born problem-solver, Duncan had an epiphany several years ago while contemplating the South Forty. As luck would have it, that acreage abutted the north side of nearby Perryville Prison.