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:
"Duncan Family Farms?"
"We were there!"
Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: [email protected]