Conversation with an Organic "Retail" Farmer: Bob McClendon

Local and organic sells better than either one alone. Just ask Robert (Bob) and Marsha McClendon, members of Arizona Farm Bureau and owners of McClendon’s Select; a retail/direct-market farm. They’re so niched and specialized, they shake their own heads at how strong the demand is for their product.

 

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 amount of acres and mainly to chef-owned, chef-directed restaurants, never to chain restaurants. They sell directly to the public twice-a-week at the Town and Country Farmers’ Market and the Old Town Farmers’ Market during their growing season. They started selling at the Town and Country Market more than a decade 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 now has 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.”

 

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 150 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.

 

To highlight the variety, McClendon’s Select grows 14 types of micro-greens for just one chef.  

 

And in the midst of all this, they’re devoted members of Arizona Farm Bureau; and this despite a few disagreements with Farm Bureau policy. But the McClendons recognize the democratic process the Farm Bureau provides and more importantly the protection they believe the organization creates on behalf of Arizona agriculture.

 

If there is anyone that knows about farming in the direct-market segment, it’s McClendon.

 

Arizona Agriculture: What's big in the direct-market agriculture industry right now, in your opinion?

McClendon: Direct-market sales directly to consumers of any kind of food item that’s locally grown continues to be popular. People more and more want to know where their food comes from. The non-GMO label topic is becoming a huge issue too.

 

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.

 

Arizona Agriculture: Since we’ve heard small-scale farmers say this, we must ask, does Farm Bureau under serve small, retail farmers?

McClendon: No, I don’t think so. I look at your book [A Farmer’s Guide to Marketing the Direct Market Farm]; it’s a wonderful piece to help farmers direct market their products. I don’t know of anybody else in the country that’s done anything quite like that. You take care of small farmers just like you take care of big farmers. If we have a specific problem Farm Bureau can direct us to a specific solution. I don’t think that Farm Bureau under serves the small farmer at all.

 

How do you know if you’re under served if you don’t belong and you don’t partake in what Farm Bureau has to offer?

 

Arizona Agriculture: Why are you a Farm Bureau member?

McClendon: It’s not just because we have to be to have the Farm Bureau ag insurance. In fact, that’s not it at all. The insurance is the smallest part of it as far as I’m concerned. The amount of lobbying and information provided, in addition to legislative events that Farm Bureau hosts, is key to me. Farm Bureau is always out there fighting for all-size farmers. How well they do this and the fact that they do these things is far better than what one single farmer could ever think about doing. All these things are so important including a tax structure that favors the farmer in order for us to be profitable.  I see Farm Bureau fighting for that every year.

 

The whole legislative umbrella that Farm Bureau does and does so well means I can stay in business and be successful.

 

You communicate so well too. I wouldn’t know what’s going on if I didn’t get the regular publication and other communication tools including the weekly eNewsletter; even the legislative alerts tell me what I need to engage in as it relates to state and national issues. It also means that I don’t have to personally be on top of all that’s going on that impacts Arizona agriculture. You guys can worry about that for me.

 

So overall, Farm Bureau communicates extremely well and lobbies extremely well at the state level supporting legislation that helps every-size farmer no matter how big or small; whether that’s dust control, pest management or tax issues.

 

Arizona Agriculture: In today's climate, we must address GMOs. Arizona Farm Bureau policy is opposed to mandatory labeling though not opposed to the market driving labeling. Isn't it true that the real non-GMO label is certified organic? Explain?

McClendon: Right. If it is certified organic, [the product] cannot be GMO. An organic farmer cannot have used GMO seed to produce his organic product. The USDA program makes me keep a statement from every seed company I purchase seed from that they have not supplied, nor stocked, any type of modified seed in their inventory. They are that specific. So, people wanting to avoid GMO can buy certified organic and avoid it.

 

Personally, I think there should be mandatory labeling so people can make their own decision. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t allow GMO in this country. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have any GMO crops. All I’m saying, and a lot of people are saying, we just want to know so we can make our own conscious decision. We don’t want anyone telling us that we have to do this or that. We want labels so we can make the decision. We can still buy [GMO products]; they’re not going to be outlawed.

 

Arizona Agriculture: So you don’t think the Certified Organic product satisfies the GMO labeling issue in the market.

McClendon: It satisfies it for the organic market. There are so many products we eat that are not organic or available organic or too expensive organic. There are a whole lot of things to consider in the food chain from farm to table. Yes, if you buy 100% organic you know you’re avoiding GMO products. But, if [organic is] too expensive or not available, then it leaves a [information] void in the market for those concerned.

 

Arizona Agriculture: Beyond labeling, why is USDA certified organic so important to you? Or, certified organic in general?

McClendon: First, the term organic can’t be used unless it’s USDA certified. 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.

 

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 really stiff.

 

There is no true definition for local, by the way. Most people consider local to fall within a 100-mile radius; maybe 120-mile radius.

 

From the time we became USDA Organic certified our business has grown exponentially. Our vegetable space has quadrupled in the last 12 months. Plus, we’re going to add more acreage in 2014.  We’ve gone from 25 acres; we’re now farming 50 acres and we’ll add an additional 50 acres in 2014. It’s still small potatoes when you talk about farmers farming thousands of acres of cotton and alfalfa.

 

This fall and into 2014, we’re going to produce so much product that we’ll have to start wholesaling and open up a whole new market. I have several produce companies that want to provide McClendon’s Select produce to their customers. In lots of cases, some retail stores plan to feature a McClendon’s Select section. Whole Foods wants to do a McClendon’s Select section in their Town and Country Whole Foods Market that will open in September. That whole section will be devoted to our organic produce.

 

To manage all this, I have to make sure I take care of all my direct market customers because that’s my highest profit margin. When I wholesale, my profit margin goes down, yet we’re looking at scale. We’ve purchased enough big farm equipment to move into what we’re planning on doing in the wholesale market.

 

Arizona Agriculture: In 30 years, what does McClendon Select look like?

McClendon: Well, I won’t be around in 30 years but Sean will be. In fact, he’ll be my current age in 30 years. The way I see our future is growth. I see us continuing to develop more markets. We’re already looking into the wholesale market I mentioned earlier. I think that we could even have a brick and mortar; a retail outlet. We’ve had several opportunities in the last few years but we’re not ready to take on the overhead that a retail store requires.  I think we’ll do more farmers’ markets; currently we only do two. Farmers’ markets have steadily increased and grown in Arizona. There’s good ones and not so good ones. The good ones are marked by the presence of good farmers. If you find a good market like the Litchfield Market, it’s because it’s marked by the presence of Arnott Duncan’s Duncan Family Farms. Town and Country is a good market because of McClendon’s.

 

A real opportunity for up-and-coming direct-market farmers is to pick out logistically a good farmers market that they can shine in. Some potential markets exist that need some really good farmers.

 

And to anyone that wants to get into direct-market farming they have to live the business. This is not a 9 to 5 job. They have to love it and live it; it has to be a part of their life. That sometimes means doing some things seven days a week. It’s just something you better love doing because if you’re looking for a job to make a lot of quick money you’re wasting your time here.

 

Arizona Agriculture: On marketing, what do you recommend that our aspiring retail farmers do?

McClendon: Live the business. 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 or I are 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. We hire a well-known, local chef to work market hours to 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.