Patty Emmert is the Community Relations and Marketing Manager for Duncan Family Farms, a certified organic farm specializing in leafy greens and specialty vegetables. Since joining the farm in 2010, Patty has worked to help the company expand its Specialty Vegetable crops by fostering new business relationships, including wholesale and retail accounts, and growing sales.
Patty also oversees marketing and community outreach for the farm. Her successful outreach projects include the creation and management of the Wigwam Farmers Market, a health and wellness initiative called Salad a Day the Duncan Way and various volunteer initiatives.
But Patty’s interest in food and farming goes beyond the farm fields she’s often checking at Duncan Family Farms. Patty is the current Director for Slow Food Phoenix, the local chapter of a global non-profit organization focused on good, clean and fair food. She was a U.S. Delegate to Terra Madre in Turin, Italy and is an active member of Blue Watermelon Project, which focuses on taste education and healthy food in schools. Her dedication is deeply rooted in building vibrant local food supply systems and making sure that everyone has access to healthy, fresh food.
Because Patty can talk about all sorts of insights when it comes to food, such as flavor profiles and more, I thought it was time to make her the center of one of our conversation articles.
Arizona Agriculture: Tell us the origin and history of Duncan Family Farms?
Emmert: Our roots run deep in the farming industry. Arnott Duncan is a 4th generation Arizona farmer who left his family’s farm in 1985 and began cultivating a few hundred acres of conventionally-grown row crops. In 1992, Arnott along with his wife Kathleen, decided they wanted to reach out to the community to bridge the gap between urban and rural life. They began offering educational tours for school groups and establishing a small, seasonal produce stand at their farm site.
During its first year alone 18,000 students visited the farm. In the second year, the number swelled to 30,000. During its 11-year run, Duncan Family Farms® became an extremely popular recreational and educational destination. In fact, the farm was one of the fastest-growing ‘agricultural-tourism’ sites in the country for many years. Then in 2001 a change in flight activity at the nearby Luke Air Force Base created a situation where the agricultural-tourism program had to cease. Despite this Duncan Family Farms® has remained committed to be a good neighbor and an integral part of the community.
Arizona Agriculture: From agritourism to one of the largest family-owned. USDA-Organic certified Farms: Explain the evolution.
Emmert: By 1994 our farm had expanded into organic production, growing organic baby leaf items including several different varieties of lettuce and greens. These greens are delivered to some of the largest value-added processors in North America, Canada and the United Kingdom who provide bagged salads to the retail and foodservice industries. As our business has evolved, we have tried to blend the best of traditional farming with the latest in agricultural technology. Duncan Family Farms® has won numerous awards and is nationally recognized as a showcase of progressive and environmentally-sensitive farming techniques, due to our innovative programs.
Up until 2010 we were a seasonal grower in Goodyear, AZ. We purchased additional ground in California to expand seasonal operations and to provide our customers with a year-round supply of produce. We also added a Specialty Crop program that included organic Kales, Chards, Beets, Romaine Hearts and Herbs. The additional ground in California allows us to grow our products in the summertime while maintaining our agronomic practices of resting the ground and rebuilding the soil in the off-season. Additional ground also provides geographic diversity, which allows us to expand our portfolio of produce.
Today our multi-regional operations are in Central Arizona and the Imperial Valley, Central Coast and its inland valleys in California, Southern Oregon and Upstate New York. The geographic diversity of these organically-certified growing locations allows us to grow and ship product into local and regional markets seasonally while providing opportunities to diversify our product portfolio with items that may not grow well in in Arizona.
Arizona Agriculture: Your composting effort on the farm greatly enhances your soil health strategies. Please explain the process?
Emmert: At Duncan Family Farms®, we are turning unwanted tree trimmings, grass clippings, wood chips, and farm animal manure into life-giving, nutrient-rich compost. In fact, we operate one of the largest privately-run composting programs in the Southwest on our farm. Through this comprehensive composting program, we can take large quantities of waste from local dairies, horse farms, and other sources and turn it into natural fertilizer. Once on our farm, this ‘waste’ that might otherwise become a nuisance to nearby residents is quickly broken down and used to create healthier soil in which to grow our crops. Our farm also receives truck-loads of tree trimmings, grass clippings and wood chips from local municipalities. We can take this waste that would otherwise end up in the local landfill and recycle it in several ways. The tree trimmings and grass clippings are added to our compost piles and help create a natural fertilizer. The wood chips are spread on roadways and in our farmyard, which helps to reduce dust and improve the overall appearance of our farm.
Arizona Agriculture: Too me, good farmers are simply gifted. But what’s given this Arizona farm family such a knack for getting it right?
Emmert: We approach farming as a blend of science and art. And by art, I mean that attention to detail that allows you to really try and understand the nuances of nature. In addition, it is the constant pursuit of learning and always striving to improve.
It is always doing the right thing and not taking short cuts. Then you sprinkle large doses of passion and you have a great recipe to weather the challenges and find solutions that propel you forward. Arnott Duncan is extremely passionate about farming and he is very humble. You ask him what makes Duncan Family Farms so successful and he will tell without hesitation it is because of his team. We are fortunate in that we have a great team, and everyone has this unbridled enthusiasm and passion for what they do and those of us in farming know how hard it is day in and day out to grow and produce food. So, passion is the fuel that keeps you going.
Arizona Agriculture: Explain some of the food safety strategies along your farming supply chain.
Emmert: Food Safety and Farm Worker Safety are the two most important values that drive every one of our decisions on the farm. Our farm has created a program that incorporates the requirements set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) and customer specific procedures and protocols.
Our Technical Services Department oversees our food safety audits, certifications and daily practices. We have teams at each of our locations that perform the following duties:
- Continuous employee training of GAPs
- Internal audits of our ranches and harvest crews
- Participation of 3rd party Audits by USDA, LGMA and Primus Labs.
- Testing and monitoring of water sources
- Testing and monitoring of composted materials and soil amendments
- Preseason and pre-harvest inspections in order to monitor environmental conditions
- Raw product testing of pathogens
- Standard Operating Procedures and Standard Sanitation Operating Procedures
Duncan Family Farms’ mission statement very specifically calls out that it is our job to produce healthy, life-giving food and this is embedded in our culture with every single employee regardless if you are working in production or in the office.
Arizona Agriculture: What excites you about our food chain today?
Emmert: What is excites me the most about our food chain today is the disruption and change we are going through in how food is produced and distributed. Much of this disruption is brought on by challenges that we are experiencing due to increased populations, labor shortages and climate change, just to name a few.
But this is when we see high levels of innovation occur and there are many solutions being explored and proving to be successful models. In addition, we as consumers are becoming more educated on how our food is produced and demanding more transparency within our supply chains.
With continued challenges in front of us to feed a growing population, I am optimistic that we are finding new and better ways to take care of people and our planet. We must have continued focus on how to protect the resources of our planet and ensure that all people have access to healthy food.
Arizona Agriculture: You once mentioned that consumers want unique items with a high flavor profile. What do you mean by that?
Emmert: During the 20th and 21st Century food consumption patterns shifted away from eating with the seasons. We wanted everything all the time and we did not care about how good it tasted. Food production models became focused on breeding and growing food for uniformity, appearance and shelf life and in the process, we bred the flavor out of food. As consumers, we became accustomed to being able to buy produce year-round and we lost eating with the cadence of the seasons.
Now, the consumer is demanding flavor and seeking the health benefits in food and farmers are responding by new varieties with high flavor profiles.
Arizona Agriculture: If you had a crystal ball, what would you say you see with the future of our farmers and ranchers and the consumer relationship?
Emmert: We now have a generation of young people that view eating as an ethical act in a way that no previous generation ever has. That plate of food is the connection to farming, nutrition and the environment. I believe we have a future that with continued understanding and education about the challenges our producers face in growing food the consumer will understand the “true cost” of that food and begin to support producers by paying a fair price. At the end of the day it is our farmers and ranchers that tend the land and feed us so we must ensure that their work is sustainable; in earning a living and in tending to the land.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Arizona Farm Bureau's Arizona Agriculture.