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Farming and Ranching

Open the picture for an economic breakdown of Arizona’s agricultural industry by product.

Long before statehood, there was agriculture. One thousand years ago, the Hohokam people supported a thriving farming community through an elaborate network of canals. In the 1860s, farming near the Vulture mine supplied food to the miners and led to the founding of Phoenix. In the years that followed, dams provided consistent water to farmers, and our natural grasslands enticed ranchers.

Today, ranching and agriculture form the state's second largest source of revenue. Together they contribute $10.3 billion to the state’s economy. Our produce, dairy, and beef help feed the nation. Approximately 15,000 farms and ranches—a whopping 94% of them family operated—span the state.

Three of Arizona’s “Five Cs” (citrus, cotton, and cattle) arise from agriculture. Nationally, Arizona ranks second in the production of lemons, third in tangerine production. Cotton was briefly our state’s largest resource, and is the reason the City of Goodyear exists. The cattle industry continues to boom. In fact, dairy is Arizona’s leading agricultural product! In addition, the state’s ranchers produce enough beef annually to feed over 4.6 million Americans.

Oranges, lemons, and grapefruit

Yet we produce so much more! Yuma is the winter lettuce capital of the world, supplying an estimated 95% of the nation’s head lettuce, leaf lettuce, and romaine lettuce along with a cornucopia of seasonal veggies. In fact, Arizona ranks second in the U.S. in head lettuce, leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli production. Apple growers over the last 5 or 6 years average close to 20 million pounds per year. After rapid growth in the in 1980s, Arizona’s annual pecan harvest is worth $52 million. Total revenues from the agriculture industry are second only to mining.

Climate: The Fourth C

Though climate is not a product, it is an important economic driver. The balmy winters of Southern Arizona draw visitors and temporary residents from around the world for travel or adventure. Moreover, climate drives agriculture. Thanks to a lack of freezing temperatures, crops are planted and harvested all year round. In some ways, dry weather is helpful, because reliance on irrigation waters on a set schedule and controls the exact amount of water a crop receives.

Yet farming without a steady source of water is a constant challenge. Early farmers in the Phoenix area often faced flood and drought conditions from the unpredictable Salt River. In the early 1900s they banded together and offered their land as collateral to the federal government’s first reclamation project: the Roosevelt Dam. Roosevelt Dam controlled Salt River flow and spurred farming in the Valley.

Finding a Balance

Hear Juaquin Ruiz, Dean of the College of Science at the University of Arizona, on climate change and water use.

Crops are thirsty. Agriculture consumes approximately 70% of the state’s water. Overuse of water in the Phoenix area has dropped groundwater levels, leading to ground subsidence and opening wide cracks known as “earth fissures” that can cause public hazards. Overuse of tributary rivers is shrinking Arizona’s fragile wetlands, threatening migratory birds, wildlife, and tourism in some of our state’s most scenic areas. In Yuma, 90% of the Colorado River water above the Imperial Dam is diverted to agriculture.

Climate change already creating challenges for farmers in other regions, is considered a major threat to Arizona’s water resources. In some ways, Arizona’s acclimation to dry, hot weather gives the state a unique advantage. It is likely that our farms already have invested in cooling and irrigation systems that Midwestern farms may lack when they encounter uncooperative weather. However, in this extreme climate any rise in temperature or decreased rainfall could strain crops and livestock past their breaking point.

Arizona’s growing population is demanding ever more water, but we are using this resource far faster than it can renew itself. One of Arizona’s largest challenges over the next hundred years is to maintain our importance as an agricultural center without over-allocating our resources. Our agricultural research centers are looking for solutions through advancements in irrigation, technology, and land management

New Directions

Grapes in Arizona.

Innovations in irrigation and farming techniques by our agricultural research centers are helping to lower our agricultural water use. Methods of dry farming, used for centuries by American Indian tribes of the southwest, are still popular. Cotton farmers have drastically reduced water use through no till planting and irrigation recycling. Development of low-water non-food crops like guayule and sorghum could lead to exciting new sources of energy and revenue.

Arizona Wine: A Developing Culture

Started in the 1970s, viticulture (the process of growing grapes for wine) is a newcomer to Arizona's agricultural sector. But it's catching on quickly. Any wine connoisseur will tell you that region is everything. As it turns out, some of Arizona’s high elevations and sandy soil provide choice locations for vineyards. The high grasslands surrounding Sonoita contain the first vineyards, but growing regions have expanded to Willcox and the Verde River Valley.

Agricultural statistics from the Arizona Farm Bureau.