Paul Brierley, Arizona Department of Agriculture’s recently appointed director, as the maxim says, really needs no introduction. If you’ve been engaged in the network that comprises Arizona agriculture, you’ve at least heard of him. Certainly, if you are an Arizona Farm Bureau agriculture member, you know who he is and where he’s recently landed.

My first question in this conversation article will lay out some interesting facts about his background in his answer to me. 

So, I’ll tell you a story about Paul that I would like to share since it personifies his character. After about a year at the Arizona Farm Bureau, I sold my home in Ahwatukee (Phoenix) and purchased one in Gilbert. Soliciting the required help in packing boxes to be ready for the moving truck, a few volunteers peeled away so that I was left with only my older brother, Brent, and Paul. I think when they showed up and saw how little I’d gotten done, after all, I was dusting off each book or breakable item and gingerly packing it into a box, they speedily whipped through every room and had boxes filled just as the movers rolled up to the front of my house. If I’d gone at my pace, I may still be in Ahwatukee packing. Sometimes you just need others to help move you forward. 

And because our family and agriculture network help in more ways than one, we must stick together and rise above differences. 

Today, it’s a pleasure working with Paul in his new role and the Arizona Farm Bureau is excited to give our new director a platform to inform and envision. 


Paul Brierley is the newly appointed Director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

Arizona Agriculture: Congratulations on your appointment! What do you hope to bring to the agency including your vision for supporting the regulatory role of the Arizona Department of Agriculture?

Brierley: I hope to bring my lifelong experience in various facets of production agriculture to the role. I'm an Ag guy, not a bureaucrat.  I grew up farming, took a detour into the technology world by becoming an electrical engineer/computer scientist and working in telecommunications research, and then was back in production agriculture in a Graham County hay business with my dad.  While there I got active in the Farm Bureau and grassroots politics.  I also went through the Project CENTRL rural leadership program during that time, and it was life-changing.  I ended up going to work for the Arizona Farm Bureau as a Field Services Manager covering the Eastern counties, and then as Director of Organization. In those roles, I learned a lot about both animal and crop production -- the people, the methods, and the issues they face.


I was then recruited as the inaugural Executive Director of the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture, a public-private partnership between the Ag industry and the University of Arizona.  We focused on solving the pressing problems faced by production agriculture, including irrigation management, plant disease, soil health, food safety, and Ag Tech.  I've spent over 30 years in the trenches of Arizona agriculture, and I know the people and the challenges, as well as the opportunities.


In my new role leading the Arizona Department of Agriculture (AZDA), I believe my background of working in and with the agriculture industry is very important. Something that former Arizona Farm Bureau Government Relations Director Joe Sigg used to tell me about the Arizona Department of Agriculture is that they do the good kind of regulation. Indeed, we are mostly regulatory. We do lots of licensing and inspection for everything from food safety to pesticide applicators to pest control companies. But our inspections are the kind that allows commerce to happen. It is thanks to our inspections and certifications that other states and countries allow Arizona agricultural products to be sold in their jurisdictions.  My message to our inspectors and regulators is to always work with industry as much as possible, to be a facilitator, not a barrier.



Arizona Agriculture: You’ve already been all over the state speaking to various stakeholders. You’ve done a really good job of explaining the role of the AZDA. For this audience, as if at the podium again, explain what you’ve explained on the road and what the Arizona Department of Agriculture is responsible for. And share some of the fascinating aspects that people don’t often think about. 

Brierley: We have about 300 people across the state in seven different divisions that make up the Arizona Department of Agriculture: Animal Services; Environmental and Plant Services; Citrus, Fruit and Vegetable; Agriculture Consultation and Training; Pest Management; Weights and Measures; and Licensing.  Our mission is to protect the health and safety of Arizona consumers, advance and support Arizona agriculture, and safeguard commerce.  We do that both domestically and internationally through a variety of inspection and certification programs involving plants, livestock, meat, dairy, vegetables, citrus, fruit, eggs, feed, fertilizer, seed, agricultural and non-agricultural pesticides, packaged consumer goods, retail pricing and commercial weighing and measuring devices. AZDA protects and guards against the risks associated with the entry and spread of plant and livestock pests and diseases.  AZDA implements education and training programs regarding pesticide use and on-farm food safety and assists in attaining air quality standards. AZDA also provides extensive agricultural and metrological (not weather - look it up!) laboratory services.


We license, regulate and inspect not just farm pesticide use but also that of home pest and weed applicators. Our Weights and Measures Division inspects each and every gasoline pump in the state every three years, as well as 15 other types of commercial devices. These include scales from jewelry scales to truck scales to make sure consumers are getting the right quantity, and price scanners at your local retailer to make sure they are charging you properly. Our metrology lab certifies what an ounce is, what a kilogram is, and what a gallon is so that those who are testing are testing accurately, so accurately that even temperature and vibration can nullify their results. Our metrology lab is one of the best in the nation, and we provide services to many other states that don’t have the same capabilities. These are compensated services, so we return much more to the general fund than we take for Weights and Measures.  At the U.S.-Mexico border, we inspect the quality of literally millions of boxes of grapes, tomatoes, dates, and other products that are imported from other countries.  One of the most surprising roles we play is that of emergency management: We have an emergency command center in our office and a mobile command center, and we play a key role in the state's response to emergency situations such as wildfires or foreign animal diseases impacting livestock.



Arizona Agriculture: There are important strategic connections with all stakeholders in agriculture and outside of agriculture that suit the AZDA’s role. Talk about this a bit.

Brierley: Assuring a safe and reliable food supply is definitely a huge team effort! Several collaborators that come to mind are industry groups like the Farm Bureau, universities like the Land Grant University of Arizona, the USDA and other federal agencies, and even other Arizona state agencies like the Department of Water Resources and the Arizona State Land Department. I rely heavily on producers themselves, and the organizations that represent them, to keep me informed about the issues that are most concerning to them, and the talking points that are most effective in helping me find partners to solve the issue.  


During my time at the University, I learned how valuable the researchers and the Cooperative Extension agents are to creating new knowledge and distributing it to the folks in the country who use it to make such a big impact. Federal government agencies, especially the USDA, are great partners.  


We are at a unique time in history when there is a lot of federal and state funding available to help production agriculture adjust to climate change and water challenges. We need to be sure that Arizona agriculture takes advantage of that, and one way is through the Arizona Department of Agriculture being an on-the-ground partner for these federal and state programs. 


We administer grant funding received from the USDA for the benefit of producers in Arizona. Much of your audience is aware of the Specialty Crop Block Grant program which has provided over $1 million a year for many years to research, marketing, and other efforts to make our specialty crops more competitive. We are just starting a new program called the Resilient Food Systems Infrastructure program which brings $4.6 million to Arizona to build up the middle of the supply chain, allowing more opportunity for small and medium-size producers to sell into our local markets. We also administer the Livestock Operators Fire and Flood Assistance Program funded by the state to help ranchers rebuild after they’ve had damage from a fire and then a flood. 


It’s important to me to stay connected to actual producers, so I’ve made it a priority of mine to get out to different counties and see firsthand the different types of agriculture that we have. Seeing the variety of products that we produce, and hearing firsthand from the producers about their challenges and how they think they can be solved is an important part of my ability to impact the industry.  When I work with an industry group like the Farm Bureau or the Arizona Food Marketers Association or the Arizona Pest Professionals Organization, I know I’m hearing the key concerns that need to be addressed. Again, my goal is that we are the good kind of regulation that promotes a level playing field, assures the safety of our public, and leads to a thriving agricultural economy that is so important - critical, really - to the rural areas of our state. Not to mention the 7.25 million of us Arizonans who like to eat three meals a day. 



Arizona Agriculture: And speaking of the power of networked connections, share a few stories of what important opportunities have come your way and agriculture’s way simply because of connections.

Brierley: My favorite quote is, “The world is run by those who show up.” I’ve seen it proven time and time again. Being involved over many years builds a network you can learn from, and that supports you. The diversity of voices that supported me for this position was truly humbling and amazing, and I am so thankful to all those people, including Governor Hobbs, who have placed their trust in me. 


Probably my biggest return on investment has been participating in leadership programs like Project CENTRL and the Flinn-Brown Civic Leadership Academy. They were both life-changing for me, more because of the networks I became a part of rather than the information or skills that I learned. When I started Project CENTRL, we had to stand up and say why we were there. I said I was there for the knowledge I would gain at the seminars. The guy next to me stood up and said he was there to get to know 30 people from around the state. I thought he was nuts but looking back 20 years on all that has happened, I realize that he was correct. The network of rural leaders from across the state that I became a part of has been invaluable. Just as the network of state-level leaders I gained as part of the Flinn-Brown Civic Leadership Academy has been.


Thirty years after being in Project CENTRL when I was from Graham County, my relationship with a classmate from Yuma County enabled the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture (YCEDA)'s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the trust we had built up, he steered COVID relief funding to us from the county Board of Supervisors to implement a wastewater testing lab in Yuma that helped keep the Ag workforce safe from COVID outbreaks.  He also connected us with the Governor's office, which eventually provided millions of dollars for testing of municipal water systems throughout Yuma County and beyond. The funding enabled us to not only do the testing but to hire national experts as visiting researchers to push the envelope of utilizing wastewater testing for the public good.  And now YCEDA has a fully functioning modern laboratory that can help with food safety and plant disease research. 


Arizona Agriculture: We know water is a top issue within agriculture. What do you hope for in this arena?

Brierley: What drives me is trying to keep Arizona agriculture a productive and profitable part of Arizona’s future, even if that future provides less water to agriculture. Agriculture is a needed part of our future both for our food supply and for our rural economies.  In my role at YCEDA, our biggest project was to quantify crop water use for all major crops in the area, and the impact on soil salinity levels. From that data, we developed a mobile app that will tell farmers when and how much to water, as well as track salt balance in the soil and recommend any needed leaching to correct an imbalance.


The last thing I did at the University of Arizona was to chair the Presidential Advisory Commission on the Future of Agriculture and Food in a Drying Climate. We produced a report which lays out recommendations to focus the resources of the university on this problem. 


Water is truly the lifeblood of agriculture, especially in the desert. We are often at the mercy of policymakers who may not understand the efficiency and productivity of desert agriculture. I like to say that we farm here not in “spite” of the desert, but “because” of the desert. The year-round growing weather and the fact that we control our inputs make desert agriculture among the most productive growing systems anywhere in the world. 


Water policy is difficult to deal with because it is such a key part of every bit of desert life. Farmers need it to grow their crops. Factories need it to make their goods. People need it to live their lives. The environment depends on it.  It is a limited resource, and as our population grows and the climate changes, those limits are being tested. Governor Hobbs, to her credit, is not willing to bury her head in the sand and is addressing the problem.  Everyone, including agriculture, will need to share in the pain. I hope that the efforts being undertaken to manage rural groundwater will truly allow rural Arizona and agriculture to be sustainable.  To me, the first part of sustainable Ag is that the farmer must be able to make a living, meaning continuing to be productive over the long term, over multiple generations, rather than running a race to the bottom over the next few years and then calling it quits.



Arizona Agriculture: A recent report conducted by ASU suggests that AZDA needs more resources including people resources. Arizona Farm Bureau has advocated along these lines for some time. In the meantime, how can/does AZDA compensate for this? 

Brierley: Our agency workforce was slashed after the 2008 recession, and we’ve never really been built back up since. Our 300 employees are an incredibly devoted team of passionate professionals who believe in our mission.


One of my roles is to explain to government decision-makers how important AZDA's work is to protect not just agriculture and the rural economies, but also public health and safety.  There are areas we could expand to better support the agriculture industry, and we appreciate the support of our stakeholders in that. However, in the face of large state deficits, we are not likely to receive funding for that in the next year or two.


In the meantime, our dedicated workforce manages to get the job done, but not without a toll. We have had a very high turnover in the past, partially due to low wages.  One solution that combines my Ag and Tech backgrounds is implementing technology to provide better service to our customers with less paper pushing required of our employees.  This year we converted our Nogales inspections to tablets rather than paper.  Two IT modernization projects are currently underway - one to automate some of our livestock inspection processes and one to automate our licensing processes.  These are being undertaken with lots of stakeholder input to make sure that the new systems work well for them as well as us.

Arizona Agriculture: And on this point, talk about the importance of the AZDA employee force currently part of the agency.

Brierley: We recently had a livestock inspector retire after 30 years of service to AZDA. I did a ride along with him in Willcox, and at the end of the day, I asked him why he stayed for those 30 years given that he had shared many reasons he might have left. He said it was the people. He couldn’t imagine not being out in the countryside with the good people he worked alongside and worked to help. He is not alone in that sentiment. 


My focus is for 2024 within the agency has the acronym EAT, which is apropos for a Department of Agriculture.  It stands for excellence through accountability and teamwork. I am working to instill these values across the workforce and believe they will have a good impact on our workplace and our results. 

Arizona Agriculture: What other challenges and opportunities face AZDA that our farmer/rancher audience should know about?

Brierley: Food safety is a huge challenge for our food producers, especially the fresh produce industry which Yuma and other areas play such a large role.  During the 2018 E. coli outbreak in Romaine lettuce, AZDA did not have legal jurisdiction, nor the capabilities needed to be the responding agency.  The federal government response was slow and heavy-handed.  In the 5 years since, AZDA has gotten statutory jurisdiction, built up on-farm food safety training programs, built incredible lab capacity to monitor and test during an outbreak, and was recently awarded FDA funding for a Rapid Response Team.  If God forbid, we have another food safety outbreak like that, AZDA will be a quickly responding agency with the intent of figuring out what happened, how to rapidly mitigate it, and how to prevent it from happening again.


Productivity isn't growing as fast as the population is, and the resources such as land, water and labor available to agriculture are dwindling as population displaces us.  I believe that we are in an unparalleled time of federal and state funding being directed to solve agriculture's challenges. The government is pouring money into water conservation, Ag Tech, and climate-smart agriculture. Arizona is “the” place where those challenges should be solved.  Some state departments of agriculture have whole divisions to address some of these challenges.  I hope that AZDA gets the support it needs to grow its capabilities to assist the industry in these areas.


Agriculture feeds the world, a rapidly growing world.  People need us, even if they don't often think beyond the store shelf.  With all the new production methods and technologies being developed for agriculture, it's an exciting time to be in this industry.  Especially for young people, who need to carry the mantle into the future.  Agriculture will look different in the future - that I can guarantee you.  But I also guarantee you that people will need agriculture then just as much as they do now.  And I know that Ag producers will be there to feed their neighbors - because that's just what they do!  Know that AZDA will always be a partner in that effort - providing the "good" kind of regulation.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Arizona Agriculture