Disappearing Farmland

Saving Arizona Farmland!!!

Arizona Community Land Trust

Late Autumn Newsletter
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Feature Article

Disappearing Farmland in Arizona: Maricopa County Leads the Way
By David R Hill, AzCLT Board Member
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. 
  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.  

Member Profile
Kalila and Anthony Aragon

Kalila and Anthony Aragon are members of The Coldwater Coffeehouse and Bakery, a worker owned coop operating out of a 100-year old farmhouse off of the main street in the old part of Avondale, Arizona. A backyard market garden provides the ingredients for the menu and stocks the shelves of our farm store. Old school American baked goods and farm fresh eats are made.

It all started four years ago when a pretty basic idea of a coffee shop morphed into a company modeled after the likes of Mondragon in Spain and the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative here in the US. A tall order for sure but like most large companies that started with only a few members and a small venture, we started with a small group of like minded friends and a ¼ acre urban farm.

Participate in the Life of Arizona Community Land Trust!
  • Please join or renew your membership in AzCLT. Annual dues are still only $10.

Support our Fund for Community Land
  • One-time or monthly contributions can be made to this Fund. Eventually we hope that this fund will help in the purchase of property. Until then, we will use these funds for incidental expenses related to purchase/gifts of land; legal fees, surveys, appraisals, etc.

Get Involved!
  • Please let us know if you are interested in gardening, farming, affordable housing or cooperative development.

How to Participate
  • For membership and contributions:
    • Please send checks to AzCLT, 1702 E Glendale Ave, Phoenix AZ 85020
    • To pay by card (one-time or monthly), tell us how much you would like to pay (at [email protected]) and we will send you an invoice via Square.
  • To become more involved, write us at [email protected] or fill ou our inquiry form on our website.

Why Does AzCLT Exist?

This is an excellent question. Land ownership has become a privilege of the wealthy. There is no equity when it comes to people’s ability to access land. It is used and abused to support personal gain, with little thought to the consequences that affect our ecosystems and humanity as a whole. 

I invite you to watch an excellent video, the 40th annual lecture presented my the Schumacher Center for New Economics. It features George Monbiot, noted author, columnist and revolutionary thinker. Its title: Land as Commons: Building the New Economy



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Arizona Community Land Trust · 1702 E Glendale Avenue · Phoenix, AZ – Arizona 85020 · USA

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