If there was a competition for the toughest job, Bob McClendon could be a contender.
“I’ve had a lot of different careers, and this is the most challenging one because I’m never winning,” he said on a June day that reached 109 degrees. “I’ve always got a challenge: a dry, arid climate.”
The Sonoran Desert, home to Scottsdale, Arizona, and the surrounding area where McClendon has farmed since 1968, spans from Central Arizona into Sonora, Mexico, and averages only about 8 inches of rainfall a year with an average temperature of 85 degrees.
“Gone are the days of hard freezes that would shut our citrus down, but the warmer temperatures are just as challenging,” said McClendon.
That doesn’t mean the area isn’t prime for farming.
McClendon started with just two acres and farmed them while holding down a “regular job.” But he always saw opportunity. McClendon’s operation now spans 93 acres in central Arizona – all certified organic– and supplies more than 80 restaurants around the state.
In spring and fall, McClendon can be seen at the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers Market on Saturday mornings chatting with locals and vacationers and answering questions about anything from gardening to cooking.
“They (the vacationers) are always amazed at the variety of greens we have in the winter when it’s freezing and there’s snow at their home. Our seasons are 180 degrees from what they see in the Midwest and the East Coast.”
Regardless of season, the full list of his organic crops is almost too long to count.
McClendon and his wife, son and daughter-in-law, along with 30 employees, grow more than 150 varieties of fruit and vegetables, from citrus and dates to root and leaf vegetables and things like heirloom tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil and, in the tougher summer months, squash.
And, of course, summer squash brings delicate squash blooms, a favorite of Executive Chef Jeremy Pacheco at LON’s at The Hermosa Inn. So much so that he knows every detail of their existence, from farm to table.
“They (at McClendon’s Select Organic Farm) have to get up very early in the morning to harvest them,” said Pacheco, who grew up farming in Arizona with his family. “And Bob (McClendon) doesn’t pick the blossoms until we order them, ensuring they are these beautiful, vibrant and wide-open flowers when they reach the restaurant.”
Once they arrive? The preparation options are endless. Sometimes he stuffs them with crab and tempura-fries them and then serves them atop a cucumber gazpacho.
Other times he fills them with goat cheese curds from Crow’s Dairy, a small dairy farm in the West Valley, alongside “candy-like” sweet tomatoes from Abby Lee Farms, a family owned tomato grower in Willcox and Safford, Arizona, and then drizzles Meyer Lemon Olive Oil from Queen Creek Olive Mill, a spot in the East Valley where Perry Rea and his family grow 16 varieties of olive trees. This version of the dish spans four farms and hundreds of miles across Arizona and brings them right to the heart of Scottsdale.
But Pacheco isn’t the only chef making the most of McClendon’s yield. Charleen Badman at Old Town’s FnB likes to jokingly boast on social media that she has top pick.
Badman is well-known for her adept use of King Richard Leeks, which arrive on her menu in spring for a short time and are served braised alongside mozzarella, mustard bread crumbs and topped with a fried egg. Her menu, which reads like an exercise in diligently showcasing local produce, is plant-based and changes with the season and availability of each item. She prides herself in featuring varietals specially grown for her by local farmers, including McClendon, who has grown Sungold tomatoes and broccoli spigarello, a variety native to Southern Italy, as well as Gilfeather rutabagas.
At Mowry & Cotton at The Phoenician, Chef de Cuisine Tandy Peterson is introducing visitors to the I’itoi onion. Chef Peterson likes them because she can caramelize them and make a version of healthy onion rings, served with chili-scented goat cheese yogurt and fermented rhubarb honey.
McClendon, who grows I’itoi onions, loves them because of their history and their tenacity in the harsh desert climate. They’re drought resistant and have survived in the region since the Spanish Conquistadors brought them over in the late 1600s and shared them with the Native Americans.
Now McClendon plants them, one bulb at a time, which multiplies into about 10 onions after about 45 days. Then he harvests them, plants one bulb and the whole cycle repeats.
“They’re prolific little guys,” he said. “And when the heat comes, they’ll go dormant.”
But not McClendon. The heat doesn’t scare him into hibernation. Nor does it intimidate the Scottsdale-area chefs. Because if one thing is certain among both the area’s farmers and chefs it’s this: farming isn’t always easy, but the harvest is plenty rewarding.