Arizona Agriculture is Your Water Conservationist

By Julie Murphree, Communication Director for Arizona Farm Bureau: We’ve been writing about water and Arizona agriculture for several years now. Often, we get questions from the public on our industries’ use of water. Like, “Why do you use so much?” When I hear that I am tempted to say, “Why do you eat so much?” Instead I bite my lip.

Here are some of the questions the public has asked and here are our very earnest answers back. Many of these questions are answered by a few of our water experts that also happen to be in agriculture.

Checking his drip irrigation system in one of his cotton fields, farmer Dan Thelander is a true water conservationist. Along with most serious farmers and ranchers, Thelander is always looking for more ways to conserve water use in agriculture. 

Why are we growing alfalfa….that’s not food….is it?  Actually, you and I do need alfalfa for food. While one link up in the food supply chain since cows eat it, you want them to so you can keep obtaining the wide array of dairy products including milk, the now-famous Greek Yogurt and cheese. Plus, Beef cattle love alfalfa too. Arizona has been so good at growing it that Gilbert, before it began to get good at growing houses, used to be considered one of the “Hay Capitols of the Nation.”

Also, did you know that alfalfa is grown more efficiently in Arizona than any other state in the union? This is mainly due to our climate and our ability to control water and fertilizer application to our alfalfa fields in a much more exact and effective management way. 

Finally, you have heard of alfalfa sprouts (a different variety of seed), right? I rest my case.

Hay crops use a lot of water, so why grow it? Every living organism needs waterdue to the fact that we are all made up mostly of water. Human blood is 92% water, our brain and muscles are 75% water, and even bones are almost one quarter water. Plants are 90% water! All of this water excludes the water plants and animals need to function and that includes to grow. You just can't get away from water. Growing food requires water just as growing you required water. As one of our veteran Arizona cotton farmers Ron Rayner, said, “Any growing plant needs water to survive. In Arizona, we do have a year-around growing season and it’s also true we have a year-round consumptive use.”

Rayner has grown a variety of crops in Arizona for years and he can tell you they all love water, low or high-water use plants. But Rayner is one of our Arizona farmers who is continually pioneering new methods to save water, such as low-till methods of farming for cotton.

Even your swimming pool sitting out in your backyard in Arizona uses six feet of water a year because that’s how much evaporates off of a standing body of water. That's a lot of water that isn't growing your kids or what you feed them.

The cities sure have decreased their water use through so many programs…..what are the farmers doing to save water? Quick Reminder: cities could not even exist without farming and ranching. But very specifically, we wouldn’t even have a water infrastructure in this state, and so couldn’t have Phoenix, without our first farmers, the Hohokam, who created many of the canal systems we follow today. Then in the early 1930s, our valley farmers put their land up as collateral to build the Roosevelt Dam, a core part of our infrastructure for effectively managing our water resource. Farmers and ranchers in Arizona have been decreasing water use way ahead of the cities for decades. Specifically, where once the cotton crop required 6 to 8-acre feet per acre (agriculture’s water measurement) to grow a single acre of cotton, it’s half that today because of improved water technology like basin irrigation and drip irrigation systems.

Why don’t they upgrade it since their water is so cheap? Upgrade what? If referring to upgrading our water systems, farmers are continually upgrading and are often some of the first to upgrade or adopt a new water technology as such technologies come available. Drip, laser leveling for basin irrigation, pivots and more are all modern watering technologies in agriculture that save water and are extensively used. 

We even have our own "aggie" inventors. The Wuertz farm family from Pinal County, Arizona developed key advances in drip irrigation and today hold several patents on their technology. In fact, their irrigation technology, that dramatically reduces the use of water, is used throughout the world. 

Thank goodness the farmers will lose water first….since they are using most of it….. Agriculture is a sponge. Well, I agree, our food is a sponge, just like us. You and I eat, therefore plants and animals must be watered, and we get watered when we eat them. Remember the part earlier about you and me being bags of water going about our day? Using water makes farming possible and makes the rest of what we do possible. 

Agricultural producers do not get water for free, they pay for it. Like any business, agriculture will do everything it can to save water. 

You may find this ironic but because Arizona producers some of the most water efficient ag products in the world, using the very latest in technology (not to mention food safety techniques) “buying Arizona” is actually a great way to save water. And that's even when others outside Arizona "buy Arizona agriculture products" because we're producing them so efficiently and with the latest technologies to conserve and save costs.

Says Maricopa County Extension Director Ed Martin, “I’m not even sure if I should reply to this statement but I can tell you what I think Arizona agriculture is – it is a business, a garden, the supplier of food and fiber, and for most people who work in agriculture, a way of life.”

That’s a good assessment. Farming makes the rest of what we do possible.  

Martin went on to say, “Dairy producers run their operations 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.  You cannot skip a day and just milk the cows tomorrow, you must milk them every day – Christmas and New Year’s included.  If that’s isn’t dedication, I don’t know what is.  If you don’t milk a cow, it could lead to one very uncomfortable cow and in some cases infection. In addition, agricultural producers do not get water for free, they pay for it.  In my 20-plus years of working with crop growers in Arizona I haven’t met one that was indifferent to water conservation.  All of them were looking for ways to reduce their irrigation applications, get the most out of every drop and maintain the environmental integrity of their fields.  Arizona agricultural producers continue to make great strides in applying the latest in technology to assure they are applying water in the most economic and efficient manner possible. I also like the idea of buying from Arizona producers – I look for their labels in the market.  I know these growers are using the very latest in technology and food safety techniques. I have no idea what growers do in other countries – I buy local whenever possible and I’m thankful I have the opportunity to do it.  Arizona agriculture is a lot of things, but I’m afraid a sponge isn’t one of them.”

How much of an impact is $17 billion dollars anyway? Well, as they say, "it ain’t chicken feed," that’s for sure. 

This number is based on a study titled “Agriculture in Arizona’s Economy: An Economic Contribution Analysis”, by Ashley Kerna and George Frisvold, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Cooperative Extension, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Arizona. In their study, they found that there are more than 20,000 farms and ranches in Arizona that manage roughly three-quarters of the state’s total land area and much of this land, by the way, produces two thirds of the water Phoenix uses.  

Based on data from the 2011 production year, the contribution of Arizona’s agribusiness system to state output (sales) was $17.1 billion (valued in 2014 dollars). This figure includes direct effects as well as the indirect and induced multiplier effects. Agribusiness’s total contribution to Arizona’s state gross domestic product (GDP) was $7.3 billion (valued in 2014 dollars).  More than 88,000 full- and part-time jobs were supported by Arizona’s agribusiness system.  While nearly 50,000 of these were jobs within agriculture and its supporting industries, an estimated 38,000 additional jobs were supported in non-agricultural sectors.

Every 100 jobs in the agribusiness system support an additional 78 jobs in other industries in Arizona.  That’s what $17.1 billion is, jobs for Arizona.

If we are growing enough hay and cotton to export so much to other countries, do we really have a water shortage? I’ll let a farmer that annually has to plan out his business answer this one. “Economies in the world are very much dependent on one another,” says Dan Thelander, a cotton wheat and alfalfa farmer in Pinal County.  “Arizona grows high quality alfalfa and cotton very well and does export some of it to other countries.  We in turn import food and other products from these and other countries. Many of these places have a scarcity of water also.

“The answer is not to limit exports, but to continue to be as efficient as possible with the water used.”

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