The Lion Doesn’t Sleep

Leo-Duntz-Big-D-FarmHe didn’t look like much when he first approached.  Dressed in a sleeveless woven shirt and dirty hat, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  “My name is Leo and I just bought a farm with an orchard down in Cochise!”, he announced.  “At your age?!”, I thought.  I would later discover he was 79 years old at that time.  “I’m about ready with some of the best fruits and vegetables you and your customers have ever seen or tasted.  Looks like you’re running a fine farmers market here and I need to know what I gotta do to be a part of it.”  Best pitch ever!  After a firm handshake, it was clear he meant business and I never again doubted Mr. Leo Dunaetz.

That was 9 years ago.  On 12 June 2014, my friend Leo passed away.  He was 88 years old.  He’s not my first vendor to pass on.  I’ve been to several funerals.  They are all tough but Leo’s hit me harder than most.  Leo helped shape me as a person and as a market coordinator.  How I miss that old man!

There’s no national organization of farmers market coordinators.  If we’re lucky, we get experience working at another farmers’ market.  I never did so I was just “winging it”.  I made decisions based upon what I thought was best for everyone:  customers, vendors and myself.  It was confusing and I was often unsure.  Leo had been to every kind of farmers’ market there ever was all over the country during his 88 years.  He had forgotten more than most of us know about farmers markets.  I remember him taking me aside a few weeks after he started vending to tell me, “You’re doing a great job! I’ve seen them all and you’re as good they get for market managers.”  What an amazing endorsement!  It was high praise indeed and that would continue over the years.  Leo always provided the the steady beacon that I was doing the right things.  It meant the world to me to have his blessings.

Shahs_LeoBros_bannerHe also took away any excuses I might have.  If I wanted to complain about how early I had to rise to open the markets, Leo let me know he had been up three hours earlier in the dark with a helmet lamp on his head getting the freshest out of his field.  If I thought the heat was more than I should have to deal with, I was reminded how many hours Leo spent in the field, in the sun working that week.  He was on a mission and I better figure out that I was on one as well.

Last summer, I sensed Leo was really slowing down.  He wasn’t himself and I worried about his future.  I asked Edible Baja to write a story about Leo and his Big D farms.  His story need to be shared soon and they agreed.  In January, the magazine featured Leo, his farm and his family in a wonderful article:  I am grateful that his story could be shared while he was still alive.  I know he was so pleased and proud.

Devak_RaspberriesIt’s been a whirlwind these past 4 weeks and I needed to honor my old friend.  I took my boys, Ishan and Devak, to spend time at Big D Farm with Leo’s boys, Forrest and Niel.  On that ripe monsoon afternoon we helped pick cucumbers and baskets of golden raspberries, some of which we ate right in the field.  We walked orchards full of apricots and peaches and observed incoming melons and pumpkins.  Ishan couldn’t stop sneezing due to allergies and Devak struggled with the bees.  I got to see where Leo rested and his vast collection of vitamins.  I wanted to pick up his heavy winter coat but couldn’t muster the courage.  It was good to work, sweat and get our hands dirty.

When I look at our new space at Rillito Park and the plans for a permanent facility, I can’t help but think of Leo.  I wish he could have seen it!  He would have loved it.  I can almost hear him exclaiming, “The people need this!  The farmers need this!  Keep doin what you doin … it’s gonna be great!”  I know he still has my back and for that, I am grateful.  Rest In Peace?  If I know Leo, that’s so not happening.  I miss you old friend … and keep on doin what you’re doin!

– By Manish Shah, Co-Executive Director of Heirloom Farmers Markets

To continue the legacy of Big D Farms the Dunaetz Brothers sold the property to crew of family farmers, Cochise Family Farm.

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