In September, when Leo Dunaetz of Big D Farm turned 88, many farmers’ market customers congratulated him. He’d have none of it. “I said, well it’s not near as great as 99. Question is, will I be here at 99?”
Dunaetz plans to be—and if he is, he’ll be farming. “My basic thing in life is to provide, as long as I can, really good tasting stuff to the people of this Tucson area,” he says. “They need it. There are a lot people who can’t afford to pay five dollars a pop for a regular tomato, no matter how good it tastes. And ours do taste excellent, by the way.”
Dunaetz grew up on a farm near Millburg, Michigan, on a plot of land his grandfather bought after immigrating to the United States from Russia during World War I. He farmed that same land with his father for 25 years before moving on—though not of his own volition. (“I ended up in a divorce court. She got the farm and I got the highway.”)
After 18 years of taking up railroad track throughout the Midwest, Dunaetz moved to central California and worked on a farm his cousin owned. In 2004, Dunaetz’s oldest son, Forest, 60, who was living in Vail, called him up and said he’d found some land nearby that he thought his dad would like to farm. “I said, ‘I’m already farming.’ But I came over here and signed on with him for a 30-year mortgage,” says Dunaetz.
On Big D Farm’s 40 acres in Cochise, 12 of which are actively cultivated, Leo and Forest grow “everything from zucchini squash to apples,” says Leo. Their 700-tree orchard includes three varieties of peaches, three of apricots, six kinds of apples and a variety of pear-apple.
Dunaetz has another son, Neil, 58, and a daughter, Laurie, 56. Neil came down this past summer to help his brother and father run the farm. Although several of their management decisions rankled Leo, their presence allowed him to rest and recuperate after eight years of working 80-hour weeks from March to November. Still, he struggles with arthritis and diabetes, which frustrates him. “I regret the fact that I’ve got this arthritis,” he says. “I’m going to try to get it fixed. It’s not a good situation in trying to do what I want to do. I really don’t want to stop. I have no desire to stop.”
With the help of Neil and Forest, Leo sells Big D produce at four farmers’ markets every week—three in Tucson and one in Oro Valley. Dunaetz been going to farmers’ markets his whole life; he says the first time he ran his own stand was in 1946. How have farmers’ markets changed since then? Mileage has increased—the miles farmers drive to get their produce to market. And, he says, customers are pickier, more skeptical. “The American people have been hurt so bad by poor tasting food that they’re suspicious of everything,” he says. “You’ve almost got to hand them a sample to show that it can taste this good. One lady said, ‘I never had a melon this good in my whole life!’” He pauses, a good long pause, and shakes his head. “What a tragedy.
“Good nutrition comes from good taste, which come from people who really know how to grow stuff,” he says. “And you’ve got to train these people to do it, because it just doesn’t happen.”
Luckily, there are farmers in southern Arizona who care about Dunaetz’s plight and the importance of successional farming—passing land and knowledge from one generation of growers to another. The Farm Education Resource Network was created to train a new generation of food producers in the desert Southwest by connecting them with established farmers and ranchers. “Our goal is to keep farmers in the Southwest,” says Tina Bartsch, who co-owns Walking J Farm and started FERN with the help of Debbie Weingarten of Sleeping Frog Farms. Incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in 2012, FERN is working to create internship opportunities to train potential food producers. “You need to have local farmers to create a local foodshed,” says Bartsch. “But if you want to grow more farmers, you need to have a place for them to farm.”
Although a frequently cited barrier to entry for new farmers is access to land, Big D Farm has been on the market for more than three years. Dunaetz says he’d gladly stay on the farm to train whoever wanted to take it over. “I’d gradually turn the thing over to them,” he says. “That way, you have someone producing after I’m gone, to fill the needs of these folks. You’ve got so many people in the Tucson area that would like to buy the very best and can’t afford it. That bothers me.
“We need more people who have their heart and soul in working with fruits and vegetables and living on a farm. It wouldn’t hurt to have another couple of million more organic farmers in this country.” Dunaetz sees his work as “tied to the health of the American people,” which he says, concerns him. “I want to help as many people get nutrition through fruits and vegetables as I can. It’s not just important to me or to them. It’s important to the whole country.”
According to the National Young Farmers’ Coalition, in the next two decades, more than two-thirds of the farmland in the United States will change hands. “One of FERN’s goals is to keep good agricultural land out of development,” says Bartsch. To that effect, FERN is launching LandLink, a database to connect farmers like Dunaetz, who’s trying to sell farmland, with new producers who might want to buy that land. “I feel a sense of urgency to get this going, so we don’t lose farms like Leo’s,” says Bartsch.
In the meantime, as he waits for the farm to sell, as he waits for “Jack Frost to roll in,” Duneatz will prepare for the next season. “Whether I’m here or there’s a new owner; it’s immaterial. The land should continue to produce.” ✜
Find Leo and Forest at the St. Philip’s Farmers’ Market on Saturday and Sunday, at Broadway Village on Friday, and Oro Valley on Saturday. (“If I live and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll be there.”)