Organic farms on the rise in Arizona

Farmers at the Tucson Village Farm get their hands dirty and pick fresh organic lettuce. (Photo by: Brittney Smith/Arizona Sonora News)
Farmers at the Tucson Village Farm get their hands dirty and pick fresh organic lettuce. Photo by: Brittney Smith/Arizona Sonora News

Arizona has a new friend in the farming industry, and it’s called organic.

Certified organic farms have more than doubled in Arizona in the past seven years, from 63 in 2008 to 140 today, according to the United States Department of Agriculture .

“People are only going to produce what they can sell on a business level and a lot of people are willing to organically farm,” said Clay Smith, one of the owners of Sleeping Frog Farms in Benson, Arizona.

“Even the big producers are moving to having organic lines and all the organic lines that were really successful are being bought out by big (agriculture) and big business, because that is where the dollars are going right now,” Smith said.

Part of the growth in supply has to do with demand. Arizonians are venturing to grocery stores and reaching for organic produce because of health concerns, the urge to be sustainable and the taste.

“What we’re seeing is people who have health issues are the starting point and then we all meet someone who has had health issues in their life that have been profoundly affected by organic food. Then we start to look at food differently as to what we’re consuming,” said RJ Johnson, spokesman for Blue Sky Organic Farms in Litchfield, Arizona.        

People are more health conscious then ever and want to know where their food comes from, Johnson said.

Obtaining certification for an organic farm requires them not to use any genetically modified ingredients, meet standards and requirements for their product to be labeled “organic,” not use insecticides, get routine check-ups from certifying agents and more, according to the USDA.

Dr. Martina Cartwright, a registered dietitian and part of the adjunct faculty of the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said organic farms do not use chemical pesticides, synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizer. They rely on composting.

Most organic farms are in Maricopa and Yuma counties. The organic farms are smaller than conventional farms and generally operate locally, according to the Arizona Farm Bureau, growing herbs, fruits, vegetables, nuts, cotton, beans, wheat, dairy and even coffee.

During the cool weather months organic farms often grow kale and spinach, Smith said. During the warm weather, they grow heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, melons and a variety of fruit like peaches and apricots.

Some factors that have spurred organic production in Arizona are land availability and cheap water.

“There is land available here to grow and California just went over the 9 million mark in organic land,” Johnson said. “There is only so much farmland left in California. So they are moving this way, and water is cheaper here.”

The Arizona Department of Water Resources estimates groundwater prices range from $20 to $166 per acre-foot. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the cost to pump groundwater can range from $1,000 to $2,000 per acre-foot.

“We own our water rights so the water costs us nothing, but the power itself costs us,” Smith said.

The price of water in Arizona depends on the cost associated with extracting, delivering and administrating that water utility, according to Sharon Megdal, director of UA’s Water Resources Research Center.

A Tucson Village Farm volunteer packs down natural soil to grow new and fresh organic plants.
A Tucson Village Farm volunteer packs down natural soil to grow new and fresh organic plants. Photo by: Brittney Smith/Arizona Sonora News

Some programs in the state are helping spread organic farming techniques to everyone, such as the Tucson Village Farm, part of the UA’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative Extension Office.

“What we do is we bring kids to the farm through field trip programs and all the kids who get to come through their field trip groups get to plant,” said Alex Atkin, a farm manager at Tucson Village Farm.

Tucson Village Farm gives most of their organic vegetables back to the kids, Atkin said. “Other than that we have our U-Pick Market, where we get families to come out and pick their own veggies.”

However, living an organic lifestyle can be expensive, said Cartwright, UA dietitian.

Organic Fuji apples cost $1.92 per pound and non-organic Fuji apples cost $1.24 per pound, according to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service statistics report.

Some consumers still want the quality and taste of organic fruits and veggies, but can’t afford it. People have turned to alternatives, such as growing their own organic produce at home or joining new organic organizations to learn how to plant their own organic food, Cartwright said.

“I know people who have recently bought plots of land so that they can grow their own organic food,” she said.

Growing an organic garden has become easier with the help of garden stores that offer varieties of organic seeds and non-GMO seeds, Cartwright said. Another tip is to stay away from synthetic pesticides, chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers and rely on composting to grow organic food, Cartwright said.

Johnson says it’s good that Arizonans are embracing the supply and demand of organic food.

“(Organic) has been very popular for about 10 to 12 years now, there has been a real dramatic rise,” Johnson said. “So I think Arizona is just finally catching up.”

Sterling Blum is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at sterlingblum@email.arizona.edu.

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