The Farm Side

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.

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.

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.

"There's our answer, right there," Duncan remembers thinking. "Those guys are sitting around on their butts all day when they could be over here doing something productive."

Two years and miles of red tape later, Duncan saw her produce pipe dream come to fruition: Rather than simply vegetate in the prison's TV lounge, some prisoners were allowed to pay their debt to society by harvesting the Duncans' home-grown delectables, a "plum assignment," according to one Perryville staffer. Although there was originally some skepticism about the project (apparently several liability-minded bureaucrats weren't in love with the idea of letting convicted robbers and drug offenders loose in a cabbage patch with a harvesting knife), the experiment has proven such a big success that the farm donated more than six million pounds of vegetables to the Westside Food Bank.

Now one of that organization's biggest contributors, the prisoner harvest program is also one of the more popular attractions during school field trips.

"Whenever the prisoners are out here, there are always armed guards riding around on horses," explains Kathleen Duncan, unintentionally evoking Planet of the Apes imagery. "Or, if they're harvesting corn, the guards stand up on top of a bus so they can see what's going on in the field. The kids really love that. We always tell 'em, 'Hey, if you don't behave . . .'"

Meat-packin' field hands. A maize maze. Potbellied "cows." Okay, so a day at Duncan Family Farms isn't exactly The Bobbsey Twins in the Country.

But, as the proprietors of the Valley's funniest farm point out, it was never meant to be.

"We're not selling carrots or lettuce," explains Kathleen Duncan. "You can get whatever you want year-round at a grocery store. What we're selling is an experience, a chance for people to reconnect a little bit with the farming experience."

And if they've had to ratchet up to lure youthful customers away from Pokémon and video games, no one seems to mind.

"Let me see your teeth," says Arnott Duncan as a group of pintsize migrant workers prepare to take their leave. "Good," he announces after inspecting their smiling faces. "No one leaves here without something green stuck between their teeth."

Piling into a station wagon, the junior Joads-for-a-day wave goodbye. And as they cruise past the big baby and back toward civilization, it'd be nice to think that they're pondering the age-old musical question:

"The chores?"
"The stores!"
"Fresh air?"
"Times Square!"
"Duncan Family Farms?"
"We were there!"

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: [email protected]

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Dewey Webb