The Valley's Greens Giant
Peoria couple keep top-flight restaurants in organic veggies
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published by: Arizona Republic, September 26, 2007; also appeared in Arrowhead Life, August-September 2007
You’d never expect to find it here, just a couple blocks south of the bustling Arrowhead Towne Center and surrounded by scrubbed two-story suburban homes.
But a little bit south of the Olive Garden and east of the Peoria Sports Complex sits Bob and Marsha McClendon’s farm, a sprawling 25-acre haven of lush orchards and green houses amidst all the red-tile roofs and asphalt.
Of course, the McClendon’s were here first. “When we bought this property back in 1975, it was all cotton fields out here,” says Bob, piloting a noisy gas-powered golf cart around the fields that still border the Arizona Canal, built in 1885 to feed water from the Salt River into the fertile farmlands which drew Peoria’s first settlers to the area. “Now, this is like a little oasis, totally surrounded by development.”
The frenzied paving-over of the Valley’s once rich agricultural land has long been a sore spot for the region’s remaining farmers, and McClendon is quick to echo their concerns.
“Agriculture’s pretty much left the Valley, and houses have taken over,” he laments, looking over his fence at the rows of similar-looking homes that now surround his land. “There’s no more ground to get here.”
But unlike most of his fallen compadres, who long ago sold their fields to developers for a tidy retirement nest egg, McClendon has found a new millennium way to fit in with all the upscale city slickers who’ve become his neighbors.
Around seven years ago, while sampling the farmer’s markets in California and New Mexico, McClendon noticed the early groundswells of the organic movement, and decided to ditch the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers he’d been using on his conventional farm in favor of a chemical-free system. “I could taste the difference between conventional and organic,” he says. “Plus, I could see this real change in people’s attitudes coming. I could see it happening – long before it became trendy.”
It took five years to fully make the conversion and become the Valley’s only certified organic grower, but today, McClendon’s Select is a hot name among the city’s foodies. Fueled almost entirely by word-of-mouth, the McClendon’s, who employ a bare-bones staff of six to harvest and deliver their produce, have become the top suppliers of fresh fruits and veggies to 25 of the Valley’s top chef-driven restaurants, including Rancho Pinot, Binkleys, Eddie V's Edgewater Grille, Pane Bianco and Pizzeria Bianco, and funky in-spots like Arlecchino Gelateria and Matt’s Big Breakfast.
With his denim work shirt and suspenders and her floppy hat and overalls, Bob and Marsha McClendon, die-hard growers since purchasing their first home on 43rd Ave. and Thunderbird Road in 1968, might cut an odd American Gothic figure among the upwardly mobile professionals throughout Arrowhead.
“When we got married, the first thing we did was plant citrus trees and a garden – and we’ve been into farming ever since,” says Bob of the couple’s 40-years-plus marriage. “Most of my food shopping is just me walking outside and taking what I want,” adds Marsha, who attests they’ve got one grown son and a grandson who’ve never once whined about eating their vegetables. “When they grow up pulling them out of the ground and eating ‘em, it becomes a kind of game.”
But now, no one’s dining at more hip, award-winning hot spots than the two, who have open invitations from all the top chefs to sample the magic they’re creating with their leafy wonders and vibrant veggies.
“We like to eat in those restaurants because it gives me a feel for what they’re trying to accomplish with what we produce for them – and how I can help them even more,” says Bob. “Just this week I had a pureed celery root that one of my customers made with what she bought from us, and it was absolutely fabulous.”
It’s the farmer’s life as imagined by Lisa Douglas – if the long-suffering Green Acres sophisticate had actually gotten her wish to live in the big city and hob-nob with a higher class of folk than Fred and Doris Ziffel.
“If you look at the list of clients we serve, it’s literally the cream of the crop,” says Bob, turning an appropriately agricultural idiom. “Seriously, our chefs are so talented, I think I could grow boot leather and they could make it taste good!”
Not that he does, of course. McClendon, a member of the James Beard Foundation who this month is traveling to New York’s Rockefeller Center with former Mary Elaine's chef Alessandro Stratta to participate in the prestigious Citymeals-on-Wheels benefit (this year titled “A Celebration of the American Farmer”), is tops with the city’s best chefs precisely because they demand the best ingredients for their innovative recipes and prefer working with a grower as creative as they are.
Claudio Urciuoli, executive chef at the new Taggia restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale’s FireSky Resort, says he heard about McClendon from fellow chefs Chris Bianco and Kevin Binkley, and wanted to see if Bob could grow him some of the unique minutina lettuce, frastagliata dandelion and puntarelle chicory he remembered from growing up on his grandmother’s farm in southern Italy.
“He bought the seeds from Italy, and got some Italian machines to dry the lettuce – because in Italy, they’ve been growing things organically for many years – and it turned out they grew very well in Arizona,” Urciuoli says, in his thick Campanian accent. “Bob’s willing to experiment. And I look at his work ethic, and he reminds me of my grandma and my family that worked very hard on the land. If he wasn’t around, I’d be in a lot of troubles.”
Urciuoli admits he was lucky to get in on McClendon’s client list. Bob says his farm is operating at 100% capacity and that he’s not looking for any more restaurants to service – even though he does have more chefs on a waiting list.
He does sell some of his produce to the public, but only one day a week – at the Wednesday morning farmer's market at Town & Country Plaza in central Phoenix (and then only from October to June, as the farm stops harvesting during the hottest summer months).
On this particular Wednesday morning in May, the crowd is already lined up as soon as McClendon fills his tables with his one-of-a-kind squash blossoms, Medjool dates, Padrone sweet peppers and Chioggia beets – most sold at a bargain $1 per pound.
Cher Vader, who works as a massage therapist at the Phoenician, says McClendon’s produce makes her feel better physically, and that buying organic – at least at this market – is not as costly as people think.
“If I bought conventional food at Safeway or even Cosco, it would still cost me more – and it wouldn’t be nearly as healthy as this,” she says, holding out her basket. “I mean, look at these strawberries!”
Many of McClendon’s famous chef pals also show up regularly at the market, even though most of them receive twice-weekly deliveries from him every Tuesday and Friday. Urciuoli is making the rounds this morning, barely recognizable in a green wool hat and a weathered Crook Bros. motorcycle sweater. So is Arlecchino’s Moreno Spangaro, picking up some more fresh strawberries for his renowned gelato, and Chris Bianco, checking out possible ingredients to add to his James Beard Award-winning pizza.
“I do weekly orders with Bob,” says the fast-talking Bianco. “But when you’re on the phone going, ‘I’ll take five pounds of this, five pounds of that,’ that’s not the same as picking up two handfuls of something and actually feeling and smelling it. It’s an emotional thing, it inspires me. Plus, I’m always attracted to people who don’t have to do things but do them because they’re passionate about it. And that’s Bob. He needs this farmer’s market like a hole in the head. He could sell his land to a condo developer and never have to work again. But he does it because he loves it, and that’s inspiring to me.”
McClendon says he keeps doing the farmer’s market because he wants to keep one avenue of buying open to the public, but doesn’t want to turn his farm into a traffic nuisance for the neighbors.
“If we did sell from the farm, there would be a steady stream of traffic through the neighborhood all day long – and this has become a residential area,” says Bob – considerate words, given that the farm was here first, and that the land is still zoned for agricultural use.
“The neighbors are real, real nice,” McClendon says. “I mean, we’ve lived here 32 years, but I think it’s turned into an extremely nice area to live in. And I wouldn’t want to disturb that.”