Disappearing Farmland in Arizona: Maricopa County Leads the Way

The smell of smoke and the sight of the house next door in flames will get your attention in a heartbeat and spur you to take immediate action. Give credit to your brain and autonomic nervous system for that. But the sight of vast swaths of farmland in your neck of the woods disappearing over the course of decades produces no such knee jerk reaction on the part of your nervous system. As with global climate change, it seems that the human brain is not very adept at responding to the slow-moving disaster, even when the scope of the disaster looms large and the likely consequences are dire.

Maricopa County is ground zero for the steady loss of farmland in Arizona over the past two decades. In 2000, there were 640 square miles of land dedicated to agriculture-related use in the county and 540 square miles of residential land. By 2019, the overall size of agricultural land had decreased to just 410 square miles – a 36% reduction. Residential land had increased over that same time period by 39% to 750 square miles. At this rate of loss (an average of 11.5 square miles per year), we can expect there to be no available farmland whatsoever in Maricopa County in just 36 years!

We recently read in the Arizona Republic ­­about the plight of career farmers in Maricopa County such as David Vose and Sara Dolan, who operate Blue Sky Organic Farms in Litchfield Park. A development company recently purchased the dairy farm where Vose and Dolan lease their farmland. The company has plans for a housing development on the property. What’s happened to Blue Sky Organic Farm has in recent decades been experienced by scores of family farms in The Valley. Over the course of the past two decades, The Valley’s population has increased dramatically, resulting in many square miles of farmland being paved over to make room for houses, townhouses, strip malls and all the other services needed by a burgeoning influx of people. Maricopa County is now and will likely continue to be the fastest growing county in the country for the foreseeable future.

Local farmers and national experts warn that unless stringent action is taken, Maricopa County will have no remaining farmland before you know it. That could prove disastrous for all who live in the greater Phoenix metropolis. As we have seen in the recent COVID-19 crisis, residents have necessarily needed to turn to local farmers as a food source as outside food supplies were slowed down and the traditional global food system showed major signs of stress. The thought that local food sources grown on local farmland might no longer be available in years to come should cause local policy makers and municipal leaders to panic and spur them to act quickly and decisively. But that does not seem to be happening.

“I don’t know if there’s time to wake people up to the fact that if you don’t support agriculture in your own community, there won’t be any,” David Vose told the Arizona Republic’s Emilly Davis.

Ken Meter, a nationally recognized food system analyst conducted a comprehensive food assessment of Maricopa County for the Maricopa County Food System Coalition (funded by the Gila River Indian Community) in 2018. The results of the assessment troubled Meter. “This is one of the more shocking studies I’ve done around the country,” he told Emilly Davis. “It was the most grotesque case where income was rising rapidly, population was increasing, there were all these more mouths to feed and more money to spend on food, and yet nobody thinking about what the future of our food supply was going to look like.”

Ken Meter was especially concerned by one of the specific findings from the assessment: The common perception among Maricopa County farmers was that city and county leaders seemed to have no issue with so little of their food being locally sourced. “Most of the farms I interviewed have either moved or were threatened with moving since I was there two years ago,” Meter said. “And that’s shocking, I don’t know any place that is that unstable.”

Compounding the problem of farmland changing to land for housing is the cost of owning farmland. The rapid rise of growth in greater Phoenix has boosted the price of land, making it too costly for farmers to buy. The operators of Blue Sky Organic Farms noted that if they wanted to buy the land they currently lease, it would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $130,000 an acre – a price they could never hope to afford.

The high cost of farmland in Maricopa County due to the pressures of housing development is generally a feature of the cost of land throughout the state of Arizona. Among the nine states that make up the Mountain West region, Arizona ranks first by far in the average price per acre: $8400. Idaho is the next most expensive at $3400. The comparative high price for land in Arizona is not due, though, to the land’s native fertility for use in agriculture. It’s because much of that land will eventually be built on. With Maricopa County leading the way, much of the land in the state is held for speculation.

The state of Arizona is in the throes of a dramatic reduction in the total number of acres farmed, number of acres per farm, and average market value of farm commodities. According to USDA Census of Agriculture data, the average size of a farm in Arizona dropped from just under 3200 acres in 1997 to approximately 1300 in 2012. Total acreage has declined from more than 27 million acres in 1997 to around 26 million acres in 2012. During that same period, the average market value for Arizona’s agriculture products sold dropped by nearly 60 percent!

The total number of farms statewide fell 5% between 2012 and 2107. In Maricopa County, the decline was much more severe during that period: 24%! (Source: 2017 Census of Agriculture.)
Cotton and dairy production are two agricultural sectors that have seen the largest reductions. Cotton acreage has been reduced 85 percent over the last two decades. Whereas the state used to be home to approximately 30 cotton gins, there are but three gins remaining. Thirty years ago, Arizona was home to 400 or so families that operated dairy farms. Today only about 65 families still farm dairy.

Currently, approximately 8000 square miles of land in Arizona is used for agriculture and forestry activities – the largest amount of land used for any type of development in the state. But only 12 percent of lands in the state are permanently protected from development. In the decade from 2001 to 2011, Arizona lost a total of 371 square miles of natural area to development. That’s an area of land equal to 179,418 football fields of open, natural areas. As you might expect, the major cause of this loss of land was urban sprawl, which accounted for a 30.6 increase during that decade.

Clearly, farmers and advocates for vibrant food systems, both in Maricopa County and throughout the state of Arizona, face major challenges in the years ahead to maintain land currently being farmed in production and safe from the effects of urban sprawl. How legislators, policy makers, farmers and residents in need of a ready source of healthy, locally sourced food keep the already diminishing Arizona farmland from disappearing totally in the decades ahead is a challenge that needs a remedy sooner rather than later. 

Sources:

  1. ‘A Raging Crisis’: Metro Phoenix is losing its family farms and local food sources. Article by Emilly Davis in the Arizona Republic. August 6, 2020.  
  2. Family farms made Phoenix livable, so why are so many going away? Article by Joshua Bowling in The Republic. June 17, 2019.
  3. Shrinking AZ farmland shows Buckeye family’s generational differences. Article by Kristiana Faddoul in Cronkite News. November 11, 2016.
  4. The Disappearing West: Arizona. Article by the CAP Public Lands Team for the Center for American Progress. May 2016.  

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