Old West Meets New Economy

In the 21st century, some of the state’s most iconic businesses continue to thrive

“The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be, many long years ago.”

What that popular old folk song reminds us is that times change—and with them so do traditions and livelihoods, even those that are deeply rooted in our native identity.

The lyric may, in fact, serve to sum up the current state of some of Arizona’s most formative, time-honored work traditions, those that have become symbolic of Arizona from its earliest frontier days: farming, horse breeding and cattle ranching.

What these iconic businesses may have, at one time, represented has evolved considerably over the years.

Not to say they’re any less important to the state’s economy. Today, ranching and agriculture are Arizona’s second largest source of revenue, contributing more than $10 billion to the state’s economy. Agribusiness—the relatively new term for agriculture writ large and conducted on a commercial scale—has entered the lexicon full force over the past few decades. That term has created a distinction of sorts from the larger operations and many of Arizona’s smaller farms and ranches, pushing the latter into new economic territory.

But, according to the Eller Economic and Business Research Center, the top five products for the state still follow its earlier traditions. First is vegetables and produce; second is milk from cows; third is livestock, cows and cattle; fourth, other crops and hay; and, last is nursery, greenhouse, floriculture and sod.

The question remains: How have the smaller farmers and ranchers across the state weathered inevitable change? What corrections have these practitioners of what we might call “old Arizona” businesses had to make to cope with the change and, more importantly, are they even coping?

Growing direct sales

As Arizona farmer Bob McClendon has learned, keeping up with the changing times can sometimes be a juggling act. He and his family own and operate McClendon’s Select, a certified organic fruit and vegetable farm located on roughly 90 acres in Peoria and Goodyear. The Peoria branch of the farm features 2,000 citrus trees of several varieties, as well as Medjool dates and specialty herbs and vegetables.

In fact, three generations of McClendons grow nearly 150 varieties of organic fruits and vegetables, along with dates, honey and bee pollen. Following an age-old tradition of taking their produce to market, the family’s bounty is sold at farmers markets in the Phoenix area, as well as to select restaurants throughout Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and Sedona.

“I’ve been growing specialty produce all my life, having large gardens and focusing on what’s unusual and unique,” McClendon, a native of Tucson, says. He, his wife Marsha, their son Sean, and grandson Aidan all chip in to manage the farm and its many responsibilities.

“My son’s wife Kate handles the marketing,” McClendon adds, noting that he’s very proud of his family and the enterprise they’ve built—although it hasn’t been easy, he admits.

“It’s much more difficult to farm today than it was when we got started a couple of decades ago,” he explains. “For one thing, the weather is becoming a major issue—it gets much hotter here than it did. Every year, it seems like our summers are longer stretches of days over 105 degrees. And water has become a much more critical issue to us over the years. These conditions especially present some major challenges.”

McClendon explains how farming has changed through the years, noting how, at present, there are two classes of agriculture in Arizona. “There’s what I call ‘big-ag,’ which includes the really big farmers who are farming thousands of acres, and then there’s a group of much smaller farmers who are emerging and catering to the local, organic movement. I call them ‘boutique’ or ‘specialty’ farmers.”

Economically, McClendon says he’s seen some positive changes through the years. “The public demand for organic food is growing exponentially. For many years now, it’s been the fastest-growing segment of the food industry, and that demand has really helped our business expand into more markets.”

They key to his farm’s survival is in understanding how to market, McClendon explains. “We create our own markets. We’re a direct seller. We sell our produce direct to the end-user, so that means that we wholesale almost nothing—or very little. Ninety-eight percent of our produce goes to 80 restaurants statewide, and we do three very large farmers markets every week during our season.

“We try to sell it direct to bypass that middleman, because when we put it into wholesale markets it can sometimes be unprofitable,” McClendon says. “If we’re going to remain financially viable, we need to be a direct seller—direct to the consumer, whether that be a restaurant or a family.”

Consumer attitudes and preferences inevitably shape the demand for his products, McClendon notes. “Local organic trumps organic, because all of the giant organic farming companies have jumped on this bandwagon. You can buy produce and other products that say ‘organic’ in all the big supermarket chains. That wasn’t the case five years ago, even. So now, the public is really starting to focus on ‘local’ organic, which, by my definition, refers to products only grown and produced in the state of Arizona.”

Steeped in ‘old Arizona’ tradition

Not many Arizona ranchers and farmers can claim a more authentic pedigree than Mel Potter. Located in Marana, northwest of Tucson, Potter Ranch occupies roughly 170 acres, on which Mel and his family have made something of a legend of themselves raising champion quarter horses.

Mel, his wife Wendy, and daughter Jo Lynn moved to Marana from the east edge of Tucson in 1973. Shortly thereafter, their youngest daughter Sherry was born and, as a family enterprise, the Potters began siring and raising rodeo stock that became famously in demand among star rodeo riders and ropers.

Not content to merely raise rodeo horses, the Potters themselves became active rodeo participants, as Mel proudly notes. “My whole family’s involved in the rodeo, especially my youngest daughter, Sherry Cervi, who’s a world champion barrel racer. She’s been to the national rodeo finals 18 times.”

In Potter Ranch’s heyday, the family kept 40 or 45 brood mares and three stallions. Today, they’ve scaled back to roughly 15 mares. Although the business has seen its challenges through the years, Mel says things are looking up.

“I can see over the years the ups and downs of the economy and how that’s affected our business,” he says. “But right now, I think it’s perked up some, especially in the last year and a half. We were in the doldrums, but all of a sudden things started happening.”

No one knows better than Mel that the horse business is, as he calls it “a tough deal.”

“If we break even and end up with a few good horses ourselves, we think we did a good job,” he explains. “We’ve been very fortunate having the bloodline we have; it’s a pretty famous one for the rodeo world and we’re pretty darn lucky to have ended up with some of these horses that became famous in rodeos—people owning them and winning a lot of money with them.

“I think we do a lot better than many others in our line of work, but, still, I’m glad I don’t have to depend on it for a living. We have other business interests that have supported this.”

Mel believes that the horse business mirrors the economy. “It’s almost like real estate,” he opines. “When things are booming, a lot of people want horses and buy them. And when it’s not a good, active economy, they’re a little harder to move. But like anything else, it’s always about quality. The quality horses seem to always bring good money. There’s always a good market for great horses, so, in that sense, we’ve been fortunate.”

From ranch to market

Paul Schwennesen has Arizona cattle ranching in his blood. His great grandparents began ranching in the early 1900s, and his grandparents and parents followed suit.

In 1996, the family founded the Double Check Ranch in the lower San Pedro Valley, near the town of Dudleyville. With a second segment on the New Mexican border, just north of Clifton, altogether the ranch comprises roughly 12,000 acres, on which Schwennesen and his sons raise, process and market humane and sustainable beef.

“We’re really doing things in an old-fashioned way, the way it was done in my grandfather’s era,” he explains, “and it’s breaking from the more traditional mode of [meat processing] operations that really gained momentum from the 1950s onward. So what we’re doing is essentially breaking out of that mainstream agricultural production model and going back to an older one.”

Schwennesen says that one of the primary factors for the changes in their operation is economic. Several years ago, for an article in a Tucson newspaper, he said, “In 1950, roughly 40 cents of every dollar went back to producers [farmers and ranchers] and today it’s less than 19 cents. That’s why so few people are in agriculture anymore.”

Things haven’t changed in that regard, he says. “I haven’t looked at the metrics for a while, but I would be very surprised if they’re markedly different. If anything, they’re probably slightly worse.”

Like the McClendons’ farm, Schwennesen says that selling direct to his customers and cutting out the middleman is the only way he’s managed to remain profitable.

“It’s a business model that’s worked for us,” he says. “We have nothing against what’s called production agriculture or middlemen, but if you’re a raw producer at the bottom rung, the only way to control your economic fate is to find a way out of that industrialized system and go directly to the customer.”

Things had been trending upwardly for Schwennesen since they kicked off their direct-sales model back in 2007, he says, but recently, he’s noticed that his business has plateaued.

“It’s a little concerning as a producer,” he says, “because a little bit of me thinks that the shine may be off the farmers market and local food trend. It might just be a blip, but time will tell.”

The ranch is in the middle of trying to mitigate a downturn in the local market phenomenon by emphasizing and bringing some of the business to the ranch, Schwennesen explains.

“We’ve spent the last 10 years essentially bringing the ranch to town, and we’re hoping to be able to diversify that by opening our ranch venue to the public for weddings, events and other things. We’re right on the San Pedro River, we’ve got a beautiful cottonwood tree corridor, and it’s an Audubon-recognized birding area. So we’re just beginning to dip our toes into that realm.”


Story: Bruce Farr

Photos: Mark Lipczynski

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