Future of S. Arizona desert farming and development floats on water


Arizona Sonora News Service

A harvester makes its way down a row of pecan tress at the Green Valley Pecan Company on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.

GREEN VALLEY — Row after row of pecan trees stretches into the distance, their dark green reaching up to mix with the blue of the sky, like color blots on a painter’s easel. The smell is undeniably earthy. The trees lean in toward each other, creating a shaded pathway between the rows. It’s cool and inviting – and hard to believe that this is Southern Arizona.

Rich Walden, farm manager of the Green Valley Pecan Company and grandson of the founder, drives down the rows in his pickup. He points out how, over the years, he and his family have implemented different techniques to conserve water.

Only the pecan trees on the older parts of the farm rely on flood irrigation to provide vital water to their thirsty roots. About a quarter of the water is lost through evaporation during hot summer days, Walden says.

Younger trees are watered with sprinklers that target roots and waste less water.

“We’re always trying to find ways to save water, whether it’s on the farm or at home,” Walden says.

Farm manager Rich Walden examines a pecan fresh off a tree at the Green Valley Pecan Company on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (Photo by Rebecca Noble / Arizona Sonora News)

The farm relies on groundwater pumping for irrigation, though a plan is in the works to build a pipeline to the pecan trees from the Central Arizona Project, which sends 500 billion gallons of Colorado River water to the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas every year.

Though water isn’t a particular concern for the Waldens because their wells aren’t close to drying up, water is not something that people in Southern Arizona can easily forget about, especially farmers.

Southern Arizona has a 4,000-year history of agriculture, but its future isn’t so certain. Water plays a role in several of the factors that are slowly chipping away at farmland.

Thanks to groundwater, the Waldens harvest 10 million pecans every year from their trees, which transform the Southern Arizona desert-scape into a lush tree farm.

“I know people like having a farm here,” Walden says. “People in Green Valley like to see the trees.”

A portion of the flood irrigation system at the Green Valley Pecan Company on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (Photo by Rebecca Noble / Arizona Sonora News)

But the pecan trees won’t be here forever, and he knows it.

The Waldens have already rezoned almost a quarter of their land for residential and commercial use. They have been coordinating with the nearby town of Sahuarita to develop that land for homes and businesses according to their “master plan,” the Arizona Daily Star reported.

Bulldozers won’t be coming in tomorrow – the Waldens just bought land in San Simone – but 20, 30, 50 years down the road, some of the pecan groves will be chopped down in favor of housing and retail.

Though the Waldens may be unusual because of the master plan to develop their farm, one of the factors that is driving their forward thinking is a common antagonist to farmers – growth.

In 2000, Sahuarita’s population was just under 4,000, according to Population.us. Today, the number is nearing 28,000.

Rapid growth displaces farming.

Pecans ready for harvest on a tree at the Green Valley Pecan Company on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (Photo by Rebecca Noble / Arizona Sonora News)

“We understand we may not be able to farm here forever,” Walden says. “And at some point, we may not have a whole lot of a choice.”

Turning farmland into homes

During the housing boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Arizona’s farmland was being developed at a rate of about 60,000 acres a year, said Jeffrey Silvertooth, director of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.

In fact, that’s the future that the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 has anticipated for farming in most of its Active Management Areas.

These zones, or AMAs, were established to manage and regulate groundwater pumping because the source of water is finite.

“Agriculture was slated to be cut back in the amount of water that was available to them over time,” said Rick Gibson, director of the Pinal County Cooperative Extension.

A professional shaker dislodges pecans from a tree at the Green Valley Pecan Company on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. Depending on climate factors, pecan trees are usually shaken 1-3 times to fully remove the nuts. (Photo by Rebecca Noble / Arizona Sonora News)

Water is an undeniable limiting factor of agriculture in this desert. As groundwater pumping became rampant in the latter half of the 20th century, the act sought to preserve aquifers. In the Phoenix, Prescott and Tucson AMAs, the goal is to maintain a “safe yield” of water by prioritizing what the water is used for.

So far, the priority has gone to housing and industry, not to agriculture.

Aaron Lien, a senior researcher at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona, said he isn’t too worried about water scarcity in Arizona because farmland can be seen as a reserve of water

“An equivalent acre of alfalfa uses a lot more water than a developed acre,” he said. “Every acre that’s converted to urban uses or non-agricultural uses nets a water savings … in that sense there’s a lot of water available out there. It’s just making that decision that that’s what we want to do as a state.”

As cities grow, agriculture is sacrificed, because the water and land available for development is in farming areas.

“That’s kind of the vision of the Sun Corridor, essentially,” Lien said. “Tucson creeping north and Phoenix creeping south through Pinal County, replacing that agricultural land and agricultural water use with urban land and urban water use.”

Employees wait for the next load of pecans to be dropped off at the cleaning plant at the Green Valley Pecan Company on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (Photo by Rebecca Noble / Arizona Sonora News)

This urban growth is the main reason agricultural land has shrunk in the past 30 years, said Shane Burgess, dean of the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“This move from agricultural land to urban, to housing developments, is not so much driven by water as it is going to be driven by immigration into the state,” he said.

Phoenix is poised to become the fourth largest city in the United States by 2020, Burgess said. It is now sixth. This population growth is pushing the metropolis farther south, replacing farms with homes along the way.

And water is part of the reason why, though it’s not the cost of water that’s prompting famers to sell.

Farmland often comes in a package deal with water rights, and developers make offers that most farmers can’t refuse.

Silvertooth mentioned his friend David Axelrod, who lives in the Yuma valley and has already begun to convert some of his farmland into housing.

“It’s pure economics,” Silvertooth said. “He can make a hell of a lot of money doing that.”

Employees sift through pecans to weed out shells and imperfect nuts before they are packaged at the Green Valley Pecan Company on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (Photo by Rebecca Noble / Arizona Sonora News)

“But the ethics just makes me really cringe,” he added, because Axelrod’s land is some of the most fertile in the state.

Selling farmland to the highest bidder instead of using it to grow crops is a just a short-term solution for a short-term benefit, he said.

And developing fields is permanent. Arizonans wouldn’t be able to change their minds and decide they’d like to farm once houses are built.

“What we’re doing is depriving future generations the capacity to have that farmland,” Silvertooth said.

Lien, however, doesn’t see an agricultural disappearing act as having too much of a negative effect.

“From a food system perspective,” Lien said, “Arizona isn’t the bread basket of the United States or anything.”

Silvertooth called the idea that Arizona would be fine without a strong agricultural sector “absolute ridiculous nonsense – stupid really.”

Agricultural businesses in Arizona contributed $17.1 billion to the state’s sales in 2011, according to study done by the UA Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics done in 2014.

Bins of fully processed pecans await storage at the Green Valley Pecan Company on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (Photo by Rebecca Noble / Arizona Sonora News)

Stopping all urban development, Silvertooth acknowledged, isn’t feasible – or necessary.

If Silvertooth could control the future of agriculture and development in Southern Arizona, he would strategically select certain areas to preserve, such as the fertile alluvial soils near the Colorado River.

“We can let a lot of this stuff go and not hurt our capacity for future generations,” he said.

But the land that is often being developed has the rich soils that are optimal for agriculture, such as Axelrod’s land.

Drought and water shortages weigh on farmers’ minds

Water rights are enticing developers to purchase acres of fertile agricultural land and turn it into homes, but a lack of water is even worse for farmers.


Packaged pecans on sale at the at the Green Valley Pecan Company store on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. (Photo by Rebecca Noble / Arizona Sonora News)

“Megadrought,” so dubbed by climatologists, is now in its 13th year, and its effect on Arizona’s water has been large. Besides groundwater, a main source of water for Arizona is the Colorado River. The Central Arizona Project will be the first to be cut back if there is a shortage.

The level of water at Lake Mead, a huge reservoir on the Colorado River, determines whether or not there is a shortage. If the level of the lake hits 1,075 feet, then the Secretary of Interior will officially declare a shortage, said Sharon Megdal, the director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona.

Right now, Lake Mead is sitting at 1,076.51 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s data for December 2016.

If a shortage is declared, non-Indian agriculture will see significant cutbacks.

“It’s not a matter of being a buffer by choice,” Megdal said. “Agriculture is a buffer by virtue of these rules of engagement.”

Silvertooth called the looming water shortages on the Colorado River a huge concern. The CAP will lose 50 percent of its water – “Just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.

He said some farmers along the Colorado River think they are safe from “megadrought” because they have the oldest water rights, but he isn’t too sure.

“There’s an old saying in the West: Where water flows has nothing to do with gravity. Water flows in the direction of money and political power,” Silvertooth said.

There is a 60 percent probability that a shortage will be declared in the coming years, he said. “And that’s high, scary high.”

When the well runs dry

Anastasia Rabin knows just how scary drought can be.

She’s watched over the last few years as nearly all her neighbors’ wells went dry. Last summer

“Last summer I bought some tanks because I didn’t know when my well would go dry, and it didn’t, but I’m basically planning on that happening next year,” Rabin said.

She moved to Elfrida four years ago when she outgrew her tiny urban homestead in Tucson. She was gardening and raising poultry and goats while also studying rangeland ecology at the University of Arizona.

When Rabin bought 160 acres in Elfrida, which is about 30 miles east of Tombstone and 30 miles north of the Mexican border, she was planning to get a job with her degree.

“It didn’t quite work out that way,” she said.

After the job opportunities fell through, she turned to farming. She started a small-scale goat and hog ranch on her land, but has run into even more roadblocks. 

For Rabin, who lives in Cochise County, away from an active management area, the issue is unregulated groundwater pumping.

As water regulations in California have been tightened, some farmers have resettled in parts of Arizona that offer little to no restrictions on groundwater pumping, as the Arizona Daily Star has detailed.

Though this is increasing agriculture in Cochise County, it’s leaving small-scale farmers, such as Rabin, high and dry – literally.

“The water’s being sucked out of the ground at a rapidly increasing rate,” she said. “Wells are going dry all over the valley.”

Smaller farms are going to start disappearing, she said, because they can’t afford to drill deeper, which is expensive. While large operations are able to absorb those costs more readily, that kind of expense can easily put a small farm deep into debt, or out of business.

“And the smaller guys are what make up the fabric of an agricultural community and an agricultural economy,” she said. “I feel like the fabric was kind of unraveling as it was, and now with all this going on, it’s really just going to fall apart.”

Rabin isn’t even able to benefit from the lack of regulation. Though the land she purchased has a well, it didn’t come with any water rights – she isn’t legally entitled to receive a certain amount of water. While it’s profitable for some farmers to sell their land when it’s tied up neatly with water rights, she doesn’t have that option because she doesn’t have the rights.

Her 160 acres, without water, is “worth really nothing.”

“Nobody is going to buy my land,” she said. “There are places up and down my road for sale, just sitting abandoned.”

As her well gets drier, her only option is to dig deeper. But that’s not terribly appealing to Rabin.

“I can’t afford to start throwing money at a hole in the ground, and that’s what it is to me to go deeper with that well,” she said.

Rabin has already started shutting down her goat and hog operation. While she may be able to survive a water shortage out in Elfrida, she wouldn’t be able to care for a herd of animals.

She isn’t sure what she’s going to do next, but Rabin knows something has to change “to protect the water to ensure that it’s available for agriculture into the future.”

That change may come in the form of education.

She has seen a lot of demand for local food in the Tucson area, and is encouraged by the local food movement, but still feels like there’s a disconnect between people and farming.

“I think people really do care, and I think there’s a lot of value in that, but we need to be steering people’s energy and enthusiasm into reality and educating about this stuff [food],” Rabin said.

Urban development and agriculture come together

So what is the future of agriculture in Southern Arizona?

It doesn’t have to be war between urban development and agriculture, according to Jonathan Mabry.

Like Rabin, Tucson’s chief historic preservation officer sees the rise of urban agriculture and the local food movement in Tucson as hopeful, and he’s already seeing a difference.

Last year, Tucson adapted a zoning code to make it easier for residents to grow and sell food in the city.

Many families have embraced the change, either by starting a garden and caring for chickens in their own backyard or by becoming involved with a community garden. Mabry was not able to estimate how much urban agriculture has increased since the ordinance passed, but he said his office plans on finding out.

Tucson’s recent designation as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy may stimulate more interest and investment in urban agriculture, he added. This designation was given in part because of the 4,000-year history of agriculture in Southern Arizona.

“We’ve got these cultural landscapes in Arizona that represent continuity in agricultural and ranching traditions going back centuries, but our concept of what is an agricultural landscape needs to expand into the city,” Mabry said. “I think the prospects are good. With this increased urban demand for local food, the farmers and ranchers in the rural areas of Southern Arizona – our foodshed – are going to benefit and have more security in their livelihoods.”

Tucson has championed the local food movement, with several farm-to-table restaurants downtown, as well as access for consumers to receive their food directly from producers through food co-ops and community-supported agriculture.

“I think that that increased demand by urban consumers for these local foods is going to benefit our rural food producers and lead to expansion in urban agriculture in new, innovative ways,” Mabry said. “It’s going to be exciting to watch.”

Mabry is optimistic about the impact that urban agriculture will have on Arizona’s food system. Jeffrey Silvertooth of the Cooperative Extension sees agriculture as a necessary part of the state’s economy.

It’s still not certain that agriculture is here to stay in Southern Arizona, though.

Small farmers such as Rabin need the necessary water to grow food and raise animals during a drought. Fertile land needs to be preserved for farming and not turned into a housing development.

Agriculture has existed in Southern Arizona for thousands of years. Though pecan trees won’t grow in Green Valley forever, other farms can continue this agricultural legacy.       

Download high resolution images here.

Elizabeth Eaton is a journalism student at the University of Arizona focusing on environmental reporting. She spent the summer writing about juvenile drug smugglers and Arizona energy controversies for the Arizona Republic. She’s the current NASA Space Grant Intern at the Arizona Daily Star and extensively covered the OSIRIS-REx mission and its leaders. Her dream is to someday travel the world and write about all the amazing people she meets and places she visits. 


2 comments Add yours
  1. Overall, good job Ms. Eaton. Just one note, a recent study by the University of Arizona put the Arizona agriculture industry at $17.1 billion. the figure you quote from the MAC center may only be reflecting agriculture in southern Arizona. Proof that your one source, Mr. Lien, has it all wrong about agriculture’s impact in the state. If Arizona agriculture disappears, $17 billion disappears … I think that’s pretty significant and why economists and business leaders in Arizona consider the state’s agriculture a “top-tier” industry …
    Julie Murphree
    Arizona Farm Bureau

    1. Julie,

      Thank you very much for bringing that figure to my attention. I have updated the story to include the UA study that found agribusiness contributed $17.1 billion.

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