Saturday, October 25, 2014

In Farm’s Way

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Farmer Bob McClendon and the Cancer Treatment Centers of America have teamed up to create the nation’s largest hospital-owned certified organic farm

Bob McClendon, renowned local farmer and supplier of organic goods to many of the state’s best restaurants, surveys rows of Tuscan kale and blooming radishes – not, mind you, on the 25-acre farm in Peoria that bears his name. Rather, this farm is adjacent to Cancer Treatment Centers of America’s Western Regional Medical Center in Goodyear. And its harvest sprouted from a partnership that in hindsight seems fated. “I’ll call it a symbiotic relationship,” McClendon says.


About two years ago, CTCA executive chef Frank Caputo pitched McClendon on the idea of creating a 25-acre organic farm for the hospital. Caputo found a receptive audience in McClendon, a former pharmacist with 20 years of experience at St. Joseph’s Hospital & Medical Center and a cancer survivor himself.

“I have a deeper appreciation of what these people are going through,” McClendon says. “It’s just kind of interesting that it’s come full circle now, to have a good relationship with a hospital again.”

A few handshakes and budget proposals later, McClendon broke ground last August on what will be the largest certified organic farm belonging to a hospital in the country. The center supplies the land, McClendon farms it, the center harvests all they need, and McClendon sells the rest.  

“When I first saw it, it was all watered out of a couple earthen ditches, there were tarps and wood to back the water up and all kinds of gopher holes,” he says of the plot. Now, the land south of the I-10 is an expanse of lush soil, encompassing 200 planting beds McClendon has seeded and fertilized. In the center is a lagoon filled with 2.6 million gallons of water hooked up to a filtration system and drip lines that water the farm with the flip of a switch.

CTCA patients planted the first crop in November in the eight rows closest to the building, a section they’ve reserved as the “patient garden” as part of future plans for the farm to have a learning center. Patients will be able to tend to their own plot of the farm and take classes on how to cook healthy, organic meals for themselves, empowering them to continue their nutritional habits when they return home. Plans even include a weekly farmers’ market open to the public.  

Since it was fallow before McClendon took over, and never saturated with pesticides and other toxins, the nearly two-acre patient garden is exempt from the long organic-certification process that bedevils many conventional-farm conversions. It received immediate status as USDA Certified Organic. The rest of the farm is on track to become certified after a mandatory three-year transitional period.

The entire lot will be planted by July, McClendon says, and will be plentiful with sweet corn, squash, eggplant, cucumbers and more.

The center has emphasized organic foods since opening in 2008, and the farm will allow them to serve an almost exclusively organic menu. Although the advantages of organic food have not been scientifically proven, the farm furthers the center’s holistic emphasis on nutrition and mental well-being, says Dr. Robert Wascher, a surgical oncologist at the center. “It’s metaphorical for people who are facing a life-and-death struggle to plant a seed, if you will, and cultivate and watch that plant grow and prosper,” he says.

As for McClendon, he and his family are excited to supply new restaurants with the extra harvests, and to taste the way Caputo and staff use it; the cafeteria is open to the public, and locals often stop by for lunch. “It’s a lot of fun to see what the chefs do with what we grow,” he says. “We eat lunch here on a pretty regular basis, and it’s always excellent.”

Where to find McClendon’s Select
Town & Country Farmers Market, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. every Wednesday; 2021 E.
Camelback Rd., Phoenix.

Old Town Farmers’ Market, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. every Saturday; Brown Avenue and First Street, Scottsdale.

 

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