PHOENIX - Urban growth into Arizona’s farmland will push farmers to take part of the state’s $6.3 billion-a-year agriculture industry into Mexico, the state’s agriculture director said Thursday.
“The growers are going to go to Mexico. They’re looking there now,” Donald Butler, director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, said in an interview with Cronkite News Service.
“You keep pushing and pretty soon you’re going to have a situation like you do with oil. It’s going to be imported,” Butler said. “The growers here are going to go to Mexico and produce the crops and send them back up.”
Butler said he doesn’t see a balance developing between agriculture and the population influx that has made Arizona the fastest-growing state in the nation.
“They’re going to come, and they have to be housed someplace, whether it’s prime farmland or not,” he said. “I think agriculture is going to get the short end.”
Butler said that’s because the land is more valuable to a developer than to the farmer.
Arizona lost 37 percent of its farmland between 1950 and 2000 to either residential, industrial or business uses, according to a 2003 report from Northern Arizona University’s Center for Sustainable Environments.
Butler said he remembers when Arizona had between 500,000 and 600,000 acres of cotton. Last year, it was around 220,000 acres, and he’s heard it’s now around 180,000 acres.
Asked what the state could do to keep agriculture strong in the long-run, Butler said, “I guess the easy answer would be to stop putting concrete down on good farmland.”
Butler said his department needs to do a better job of educating people about what agriculture adds to Arizona.
“People don’t realize the effort, the capital and everything that goes into agriculture,” he said. “It’s much easier to go to Safeway or Bashas’ or the rest.”
The state is the nation’s second-largest producer of head and leaf lettuce, spinach, cantaloupe, honeydew, broccoli and cauliflower.
Butler said the move of farms out of the country could make it more difficult to keep food safe. He also noted that any food-borne illness outbreak would be more difficult to trace in imported food.
“People say, ‘is it safe food?’ They can do things in Mexico that we can’t do here – pesticides and in other areas.” Butler said.
Produce distributors are currently working with Mexican growers to establish safety measures for their crops, he said, adding that corporations such Wal-Mart are demanding a specific level of safety in the food that they purchase.
Butler said Sonora is the most advanced state in Mexico in terms of livestock and crops.
“It’s a lot of money, and they take care of it,” he said.
Butler noted, however, that the 1,500 trucks passing through the port of Nogales each day carry produce from as far away as Guatemala and Chile. While agriculture inspectors monitor what enters Arizona, it’s impossible to inspect every truck and every cargo container, he said.
He said another border issue affecting Arizona growers is the availability of labor to work in the fields. Butler said that in some Yuma lettuce fields, for example, only 20 workers are thinning the fields when 60 workers are needed for the job.
Butler said he favors a program to bring in field workers from Mexico “because you don’t have the workforce in the United States that’s willing to do it.”