The Danger Zone

The new message recorded on the information line at Duncan Family Farms is straightforward, but veiled. "Due to operational issues outside of our control, we are temporarily suspending activities in our farm yard. Our farming operation is continuing as usual; this suspension is only for the farm yard activities."

Given the time of year, the shutdown is not all that surprising. Duncan Family Farms, a 40-acre plot dedicated to public tours, traditionally closes during the blistering summer months between June and October. The Family Farms' primary visitors — school kids learning what it's like to harvest a carrot; families holding birthday parties; and people coming for a U-pick garden, a petting zoo, and a Kiddy Kattle train ride — are entertaining themselves elsewhere.

But throw in a mix of 200 F-16s laden with live ordnance and Duncan Family Farms' surprise designation as a potential site of military accidents, and it's easy to understand why the Duncans don't want to get into the earlier-than-usual closure over the phone.

Kathleen and Arnott Duncan, owners of the farm at 172nd Avenue and Indian School in Goodyear for more than a decade, voluntarily suspended their public tours in February, after receiving an anonymous e-mail from a neighboring school. The e-mail, says Duncan spokesman Jay Thorne, was a copy of a memo from Luke Air Force Base, recommending that the school stop its visits to the family farm because of risk of military accidents. The farm is directly adjacent to Luke's southern runway, where as many as 500 takeoffs and landings occur each day.

It was the first time the Duncans had learned that their property was in the newly designated Accident Potential Zone, having been determined by the Air Force to be a potential hazard for such events like an aircraft having to dump fuel in an emergency.

"Goodyear said the farm was fine," says Thorne after Arnott Duncan contacted officials at the City of Goodyear. "They approved us for special events all the time." The city has held its end-of-the-year parties on the farm, and Luke employees often brought their children for tours, he adds.

A few days after the Duncans asked Goodyear officials to explain the e-mail, the city produced a map showing that the small corner of the property where the educational programs were held was indeed in the APZ. The Duncans' adjacent 2,000 acres — called Sunfresh Farms, where they grow vegetables and fruits for wholesale distribution, including 400 acres certified organic produce — were not threatened, they were told. Not wanting to risk children's safety until the confusion was settled, Kathleen closed the Family portion.

Then, last week, Goodyear officials contacted the Duncans again, having read another map. Their initial reading was wrong. It turns out that the entire 2,040 acres were at risk.

"For the city to be so shocked and completely in the dark is amazing," says Thorne.

The proximity of the farm to Luke's runway is nothing new; the farm has been there since 1986 and opened its educational portion in 1992.

But in March 2001, Governor Jane Hull approved a bill establishing risk requirements for proposed development in the vicinity of military airports. It was then that Sunfresh Farms' property was included in Luke's Accident Potential Zone, covering 30,000 feet straight out from the military base's runway.

The bill allows for agricultural production beneath the flight path to continue, but it came with unintended consequences for the Duncans, whose livelihood largely depends on the school kids' programs.

The Duncans have yet to receive any official notification of their new, dangerous status from Luke Air Force Base, but Luke confirms that all of the farm does fall in the footprint of the APZ. "We're not aware of a 'no public visits' order," says Major Laurent Fox, chief of the 56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office for Luke. "But we are proud that they have taken the responsible steps to reduce the risk until a solution can be found."

Ironically, it appears that the Duncans brought the military's attention upon themselves. According to Fox, the family contacted Luke officials with a noise complaint last August after they noticed a change in flight patterns. It was only after meeting with the Duncans that Luke officials say they became aware of the extent of their educational programs instructing hundreds of children at a time within the base's new danger zone.

Luke and Goodyear officials are now meeting with the Duncans to come up with options that would allow the farm's educational activities to continue. According to Sally Ordini, public information officer for Goodyear, plans under consideration include relocating the educational parcel to other portions of Sunfresh Farms, securing a new Family Farm site off-property, or possibly relocating both Family and Sunfresh farms.

In the meantime, Duncan Family Farms has been given permission to host its popular Pumpkin Festival in October, an event that usually draws crowds of more than 40,000. "Luke has agreed not to fly over the area on the [festival] weekends," says Ordini. "But obviously that's a temporary fix."

The Duncans started the Family Farms division a decade ago, as part of an effort to appease the concerns of residents in the manicured subdivisions that have been creeping ever closer to the farm. An educational farm, the Duncans believed, would help introduce contemporary people to the beauty and necessity of agriculture. Since then, more than 100,000 children have taken part in the teaching programs at the Family Farms, the Duncans say, assisted by an education director and eight educational guides.

The only bright spot in the situation, says Thorne, is the assurance that the farm's landmark — the 20-foot-tall wooden baby that marks the entrance — has been deemed out of Luke's flight pattern. But as is the case with Luke's and the city's promise to allow them to hold the pumpkin festival, he isn't holding his breath.

"The Duncans don't believe in much right now," he says. "After so many changes of the rules, what's next?"

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet