Last October, Duncan Family Farms’ New York Farm Manager, Caleb Ayers, drove me around the operation’s new sites in the Rochester, NY, area. As we slogged through the mud pits doubling as field roads, I couldn’t help but wonder how Caleb was coping.
After all, he was tasked with using his years of experience growing vegetables in the desert Southwest to launch a new operation in the Northeast — in growing conditions that are about as different from Arizona as they can be.
Arizona vegetable ranches run for miles on flat land with huge, tidy, square fields. Air circulates easily, and firmly packed field roads make it easy for managers like Caleb to move around and supervise. The desert climates also allow growers full control over water inputs, and the soil drains easily.
That’s a major advantage for growing leafy greens, which can succumb to diseases easily.
New York fields, on the other hand, have long stretches of lettuce-hostile boggy conditions, which I got to see first-hand. The fields are also often oddly shaped, ringed by trees, and undulate in gentle waves, giving equipment a challenge.
Why would a smart business mind like Caleb’s boss, Arnott Duncan, choose to take on the seemingly impossible odds of large-scale leafy green organic growing in the Northeast?
It’s simple, really. Arnott is confident in Caleb and the rest of his team’s growing skills, willingness to learn, and patience. It makes gunning for a potentially profitable business opportunity worthwhile. And since I saw the final, and successful, harvest of the season underway, the confidence is well placed.
Look Before You Leap
Duncan Family Farms didn’t choose to expand into the Northeast lightly. And it didn’t just roll the dice. It needed a couple things in place first.
Strong Partners. Before the first field was plowed, Duncan Family Farm already had a customer lined up. The grocery chain Wegmans was looking for a quality, high-volume source for sustainable and locally grown leafy greens.
Reliable Water Source. Even though rainfall amounts are higher in the Northeast, leafy greens need irrigation during dry spells. All properties Duncan grows on are adjacent to or can tap into the Erie Canal.
So far, the risk is paying off for these desert-trained growers. It shows that even seemingly impossible odds are worthwhile if you have the will and the structure in place to win.