There is always one retail farmer (actually, more than one, but this particular farmer always interesting to talk to) here in Arizona I can count on to really tell me what’s going on with today’s customers and the direct-market food movement. He has a real sense of what today’s “Foodie” customers are thinking, even before the customer survey is filled out. Plus, I can always count on this business professional to help me see beyond today.
Bob McClendon, members of Arizona Farm Bureau and owners of McClendon’s Select; a retail/direct-market farm, is one of my go-to farmers about the local and organic market.
The McClendon family
Bob and Marsha, along with their son Sean, his wife, Kate, and their grandson Aidan grow exclusively USDA certified organic, all local, on a limited number of acres and mainly to chef-owned, chef-directed restaurants, never to chain restaurants. They sell directly to the public at two Saturday Farmers’ Markets, Uptown and the Old Town Farmers’ Market during their growing season. They started selling at the Town and Country Market more than 17 years ago, and forged relationships with customers and chefs that have lasted and grown ever since.
“We only wanted to work with restaurants that are passionate about using organic, local produce,” says Marsha. They have developed such a following of such chefs that the farm continues to have a waiting list of restaurants wanting to do business with them. Beginning with 25 acres, Bob says “We continue our quest for excellence even as we expand our acreage.”
Sean McClendon with nephew, Loren, on his back enjoying the fruits of their labor.
They sell citrus, vegetables, dates and honey, along with many specialty items that are in high demand from chefs and market customers, like heirloom tomatoes and baby greens. During the season, they grow more than 200 kinds of fruits and vegetables. It is their relationship in working with chefs to find their needs that have led them to try new crops, such as Yuzu, Gilfeather Rutabaga, Spigariello, and Sun Gold Tomatoes.
Arizona has only a handful of growers catering exclusively to chefs and the resort market, but the niche is lucrative. Others in the business describe the same kind of customer waiting lists and a clientele that may call up one season begging and pleading to have a new type of vegetable to feature for a restaurant’s seasonal menu.
If there is anyone that knows about farming in the direct-market segment, it’s McClendon.
“Direct-market sales directly to consumers of any kind of food item that’s locally grown continues to be popular,” says Bob. “People more and more want to know where their food comes from. Customers are even focused on how the food is packaged. For example, I sell honey. Many of my customers would prefer to purchase honey in glass bottles. So, I sell my honey in glass and plastic containers.”
And, while Arizona has plenty of organically-managed farms, McClendon is a serious advocate to the USDA Certified Organic label. Here’s why.
“First, the term organic can’t be used unless it’s USDA certified,” explains Bob. “There’s another group called Certified Naturally Grown. Right now, you can go online and get your backyard certified Naturally Grown. They use the good ole boy approach where Sam Jones wants to be certified and he calls Phil Roberts who lives a mile down the road to come by and say, “Oh, yes, you’re certified.” They claim they are the same standards as the nationally certified organic standards, but the big difference is there is no independent third-party inspection and review. It’s a way to get around the USDA Organic certification without the expense, the trouble and the compliance.”
He adds: “The value in the USDA Certified Organic program is that the public has a great deal of trust in it. It’s the only standard that they can hang their hat on. They know with a high degree of trust in this program they are getting a true [organic] product. Plus, the penalties for non-compliance can be stiff. From the time we became USDA Organic certified our business has grown exponentially.”
Bob McClendon even has marketing advice for the organic farmer, especially those just starting out and struggling with managing the business. “Live the business,” he says. “Get to know your customers. Define the market and cater to that market and meet that market’s needs. If they go into a farmers’ market and see an opportunity they first need to assess the status quo and figure out how to do it better. [The aspiring direct-market farmer] must ask how they can offer something different, something better; high quality. Sometimes, it’s the simplest shifts in how they are doing something, for example, if they’d just keep something cold by packing the produce in ice. If not, within two hours you will have a wilted product but don’t expect to sell it.
“Customers want to see and know who grew their stuff. As a result, either Sean, my son, or I am at the market. Don’t send the hired help to put out a bunch of stuff to sell. Direct-market farmers also need to have an educational mindset. If they put out a variety of produce they should be prepared to tell people how to cook it because they’ll ask you. They’ll also ask how to cut the produce. Farmers that work market hours must talk to our customers about cooking and recipes. It’s the educational part of what we do. If our customers know how to cook something, they want to know a different way to cook it.”
When asked about trends in his space, McClendon has plenty to say. "Julie, the clear trend is that the consumer is moving towards a plant-based diet by increasing the amounts of vegetables and fruit in their daily meals. A big part of that is the ever increasing growth of the organic food sector. Sales of organic food were more than 50 billion dollars in 2018. Organic food is the fastest growing segment of the food industry. I see no change in that trend going forward. We continue to grow our business by catering to Chef’s, restaurants, and our Farmers’ market customers who want the highest quality, local, organic fruits and vegetables."
Today, McClendon’s Select has grown. Their 93-acre operation included growing crops on 68 acres adjacent to the Cancer Treatment Centers of American in Goodyear, Arizona.
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