PHOENIX – The median age of a farmer or rancher in Arizona is 55 to 64. It’s part of a nationwide trend as fewer young people go into agriculture. But three Arizona millennials are hoping to use their passion and the technology they grew up with to ensure the future of the state’s agribusinesses, which generated $23.3 billion in 2017.
In a rural stretch of Arizona between Phoenix and Yarnell, two cowboys struggle to get a stubborn cow to stand up and move through a narrow wooden chute. She’s lying down because there’s no room to turn around. The cow is one of a dozen or so roped by Ty Sorrells, who rides into rough country on horseback to round up stray and feral cattle; he found these near Lake Pleasant.
Garrett Lacey, a livestock officer for the Arizona Department of Agriculture, looks over the cows, which will be trucked to a ranch and auctioned off. Lacey needs to inspect them before that. He writes down how many bulls and heifers are in the bunch.
“The auction requires us to make sure that Ty didn’t steal these cows,” said Lacey, who’s in his early 20s and one of the youngest livestock officers in the agriculture department.
That’s where Lacey comes in. His paperwork, which Sorrells signs on Lacey’s iPad, is proof that the cowboy is legit.
“At the sale barn, they’re going to ask Ty for his paperwork, so that paperwork is going to match the load that they’re coming in,” Lacey said.
To inspect livestock before they’re transported or slaughtered, Lacey drives his truck hundreds of miles for his job, listening to podcasts to pass the time.
To him, being a millennial in agriculture means using technology to help things along, such as having people send self-inspection paperwork to his phone instead of making a trip for one or two head of cattle.
“It’s super nice where … where I can just … text me or email and I’ll email it, I’ll send a screenshot, and it’s gone,” Lacey said.
And he’s all over cowboy social media, where people show off their roping catches – legal or not. Lacey monitors Snapchat and YouTube for any kind of illicit activity, but most of the time, he said, it’s difficult to determine where videos were taken or whether the cow technically was captured illegally.
Lacey finishes his paperwork for Sorrells’ cattle before heading to his next assignment.
On our ride-along, we pass through the part of metro Phoenix where he grew up, which he says shaped his life path.
“This is what I knew. We always ran around and played in the river bottom,” Lacey said.
That’s the kind of background you’ll often hear about when speaking with young farmers and ranchers. Many take pride in being a multigenerational farmer.
Alexander Khan does not fit that definition. The 24-year-old rancher is a graduate of Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix and heading to law school soon. His family just bought a cattle ranch near Perkinsville, northwest of Cottonwood.
“I also am really drawn to the work that’s involved, the lifestyle and everything that goes into having an operation that is closely connected to the land,” Khan said.
The Census Bureau says more than 2,500 Arizona farmers are younger than 35, and almost half are Native American. In addition, most of the operations run by young producers are beef, sheep and goat ranches.
Khan, too, thinks his generation realizes the potential in using the technology they grew up with to make a better ranch.
“A lot of people my age are coming together and talking about what they’re doing on their ranches and how they’re incorporating data tools and new technology to make ranching more effective, more sustainable and more profitable as well,” he said.
And Khan isn’t just talking about the environment.
“Just kind of making sure these things are sustainable not only ecologically but sustainable as lifestyles and business practices that we can carry into the future,” he said.
The high cost of entry, which includes buying expensive land, harvesters and material, can be a major barrier for young producers.
“The average farm story is, you’re one bad crop away from total failure,” Khan said.
Selwyn Justice has the farming background Khan does not; he says his family has farmed in America since the 1600s.
Justice, 30, runs a U-pick citrus farm in Surprise. And he really knows his citrus, growing 76 varieties.
“We also have the cara cara, which is a pigmented navel that a lot of people mistake for a variety of blood orange, which it’s not. But speaking of blood oranges, we have a couple of blood oranges, too,” he said.
Justice has diversified by using his farm as more of an education experience. He also helps a friend, who found Justice through Facebook, grow his cactus in a small nursery plot.
In addition, Justice is a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition, an advocacy group that hosts seminars, such as a legal presentation on water rights in Arizona. The federal government also has funding and support programs for new farmers.
The future of farming rests in millennials’ hands, with a look toward more sustainability to keep farming a viable career moving forward.
Gilbert Castellanos said he remembers when people “would fight each other to work in the fields.” Today, Castellanos struggles to find enough workers to complete the harvest on his 300 acres of oranges, stone fruits, and grapes in California’s Central Valley. He has abandoned plots because he couldn’t find enough workers to harvest them.
“Now there is no one,” he said, “for the last three or four years. Every year it’s getting worse.”
Castellanos isn’t the only one worried that the once-endless stream of field hands – the majority of whom are undocumented, Mexican-born immigrants – has dried up in California. According to the California Farm Bureau Federation, about 70 percent of Californian farmers reported that they struggled to find workers in 2018, compared with 23 percent in 2014. One farmer interviewed anonymously for this survey said that because of the labor shortage, “We have reduced strawberries from 80 to 17 [acres] in 2018; we had to walk away from half the field because we did not have enough employees to harvest the whole field. This year we only planted 9 acres of strawberries.”
Sources: (1) California Farm Bureau Federation Survey; (2) Pew Research Center estimate from U.S. Census data; (3) California Department of Food and Agriculture; (4) American Farm Bureau Federation estimate.Graphics by Bill Lane Center for the American West
Some farmers with crops like berries, fresh market stone fruit, or melons – which can’t be easily picked with machines – have been forced to watch their produce rot in the fields for lack of field hands; many others are cutting back acreage, or switching to crops that machines can harvest, like walnuts. And the welfare of California’s $50 billion-dollar agriculture industry matters beyond the Golden State: California grows more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts.
Some farmers and farm workers suspect that it’s no accident the field hands’ disappearance coincides with the rise of build-the-wall, anti-immigrant rhetoric in mainstream politics. The actual causes of the labor shortage are more complex, experts say.
But the federal administration’s harsh enforcement stance against unauthorized immigrants isn’t helping the labor shortage. In the midst of a charged political climate and widespread anxiety around immigration, California finds itself also grappling with what will happen in the long run to its farms – and the country’s food.
A Problem Arises from Both Sides of the Border
The roots of California’s agricultural labor shortage extend much deeper than anti-immigrant vitriol. In Mexico, where 84 percent of California’s agricultural workers were born, improved local economic opportunities have combined with more expensive and dangerous border crossings to dampen the appeal of immigrating to the United States. Since 2005, the Pew Research Center has actually reported a net trend of reverse migration between the United States and its southern neighbor: each year, more people are crossing the border going into Mexico than coming from Mexico. Analyzing U.S. Census data, Pew also reported that workers without legal status comprise much of this southern exodus, and that California lost 750,000 undocumented immigrants from 2007 to 2017 – more than any other state.
Unauthorized Immigrants in California: A Population Estimate
The Pew Research Center analyzed Census data and employment records to estimate the number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States, their counties of origin, and their approximate population in different states. They estimated that undocumented immigrants had dropped in number to about 10 million in 2017, down from a high of over 12 million a decade earlier. They also estimated a decline in Mexican-born undocumented immigrants nationwide of about seven million in 2007 to less than five million in 2017.
Click on the image below to view an interactive graphic.
Pew Research Center
At the same time, Mexico’s population structure has transformed. Mexico’s birth rate remained above six children per woman for most of the 20th century, especially in poorer rural areas from which U.S. farmworkers have migrated. But by 1995 – in one generation – the birth rate fell to three children per woman, and has continued dropping toward the United States’ two-child average. Fewer youths have the determination and desperation to cross the border for work, not just because the prospect is comparatively less attractive, but because fewer children have been born into circumstances that would drive them to leave.
As a result, young immigrants aren’t replacing California’s current field hands as they age and retire.
Californian farmers could perhaps weather the gradual effects of reverse migration and ageing workers if it weren’t for the industry’s worst-kept secret: most field hands don’t have legal status (estimates vary by federal, state, and non-profit sources, but they converge around 50 percent or higher). The American Farm Bureau Federation, an industry lobby, is blunt in its assessment of how unwelcoming immigration policies would cripple America’s farms. “If agriculture were to lose access to all undocumented workers, agricultural output would fall by $30 to $60 billion [nationwide]…the reality is that a majority of farm workers are in the U.S. illegally,” its webpage warns. “It’s time to deal with reality.”
Living “In The Shadows”
Seniors, many of them retired farm workers, line up for hours at the Watsonville Farmers Market to receive $20 vouchers towards fresh produce.(Photo by Sierra Garcia)
On a sunny afternoon on California’s Central Coast, seniors lined up at the Watsonville Farmers Market and waited, many for several hours, for a $20 fresh produce voucher. They wore cowboy hats and baseball caps, sneakers, and thick-strapped sandals. Everybody spoke Spanish, and when one woman was asked what proportion of the waiting seniors had worked in agriculture, she replied, “All of us.”
Watsonville grows a variety of fresh produce, especially strawberries (an international berry company, Driscoll’s, is based there). Its farmers market is two blocks long, and the farm stands display proud banners that announce, “Vendemos Lo Que Sembramos” – we sell what we sow. It’s a microcosm of thousands of agricultural communities clustered across the state, and mirrors the anxiety that has rippled through them as animosity towards Hispanic asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants in particular has intensified on the national political stage.
“People are really afraid,” says Antonia Chavez, a retired mushroom-picker and proud U.S. citizen. Luis Perez, the owner and founder of 20-acre Perez Farms, concurs. “When the government announces that there will be raids in a certain place, people won’t go to work because of the fear that they’ll be taken,” says Perez. “It’s affecting the agriculture a lot.” He began noticing labor shortages about three years ago, when relatives in farming first lost crops because they couldn’t find enough help for the harvest.
“People won’t go to work because of the fear that they’ll be taken.” Luis Perez, the owner and founder of 20-acre Perez Farms. (Photo by Sierra Garcia)
Yolanda Vallesteros Acosta, a retired field hand from Mexico with decades of experience harvesting California’s bounty, says, “I’ve lived here my entire life, and I have never seen [farmers and companies] searching for field hands to work.” This anomaly over the last three years is proof that the labor shortage is not a result of gradual, long-term changes, she believes. “It’s because of what Trump is doing.”
Graphic by Bill Lane Center for the American West
In certain ways, the Trump administration’s pro-deportation rhetoric doesn’t measure up to its actions. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportations for the last three years are on par with the lowest deportation rates during the Obama administration – and fall well below the 2012 peak in deportations.
Nevertheless, the president’s attitude towards undocumented immigration, which he has decribed on numerous occasions as an “invasion,” has taken a psychological toll that extends beyond the workers without legal status. Cannon Michael, a sixth-generation farmer in California’s Central Valley, says that threats of deportation harm his entire workforce, including legal immigrants and citizens. He explains that “there’s a climate of fear” among everyone.
Searching for Replacements
Earlier this year, the Department of Labor proposed measures to streamline the application process for the seasonal agricultural workers’ visa, known as the H-2A visa. In July, the president praised the changes in the H-2A visa as a boon for both foreign workers and domestic farmers, promising “a very, very much easier, less cumbersome program.” H2-A visas issued have swelled from fewer than 90,000 in 2014 to nearly 200,000 in 2018 as farmers scramble to hire more field hands.
Bill Lane Center for the American West
But support amongst farmers for the H-2A program is lukewarm at best. In addition to filing the application, farmers must provide housing, food, and transportation for guest workers, so using it increases labor costs. The American Farm Bureau Federation website says that “entering into the H-2A program has been found to increase the obstacles that farmers face in order to hire and maintain employees,” citing a fourfold increase in federal audits among farmers who used the program. Lupe Sandoval, the Executive Director of the California Farm Labor Contractors Association, calls the guest worker program “a very expensive, confusing, problematic system,” an assertion seemingly echoed by Miles Reiter, the CEO of Driscoll’s.
“It seems to be intentionally designed to be difficult, expensive, not very timely, and not very flexible,” Reiter said in the Driscoll’s-supported film “The Last Harvest.”
Many farmers are turning to machines instead. But mechanization can’t replace human hands for many crops ( “The Last Harvest” estimates that around 75 percent of fresh fruit grown in the U.S. is still dependent on human labor for some aspect of harvesting).
“We’re not like the central states, [where] you plant a bunch of corn, grains, soy, and everything’s machine harvested,” said Sandoval. “Mom and pop can do that with a couple of workers on thousands of acres.” Machines to harvest strawberries or asparagus have loomed on the horizon for years, but haven’t worked well enough to replace human hands so far. For crops like berries, fresh cherries, fresh market tomatoes, or asparagus among many others, people are still the best option. Labor costs make up upwards of 40 percent of total production costs for certain crops, and have driven farmers to turn to other crops, like almonds, which are lucrative and require few workers to harvest.
Labor costs make up upwards of 40 percent of total production costs for certain crops, and have driven farmers to turn to other crops, like almonds, which are lucrative and require few workers to harvest.
Other farmers, like Michael, have tried to make the vacant jobs more attractive. The benefits are impressive: his workers have retirement plans, healthcare, scholarship options for their children and “a decent wage.” California even nixed the long-standing overtime pay exception for field hands this year, so that farm laborers working more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week earn overtime just like employees in most other industries. None of it has been enough to tempt American-born workers into the fields.
“It’s not terrible employment,” added Michael. “It’s just hard, hot, dusty work, and a lot of people just aren’t willing to do something like that.” Indeed, “it’s not like even when the economy was bad we had people knocking down the doors to come work on the farm.”
Vallesteros Acosta, the Watsonville retiree, agreed. When asked whether new groups of workers might enter California’s fields if the labor shortage grows critical enough, she smiled and shook her head.
“When I worked in the blackberry fields, my hands became like this,” she offered, curling her small, wrinkled fingers into claws. “Purple, black, full of pricks from the spines. They always hurt me and gave me such a rash! You couldn’t sleep at night from the rashes. It’s terrible.” She added, “I don’t think an American would bear that.”
“In previous years there were a lot of people to work. Now there are no people.” Angelica Rodriguez sells berries from her brothers’ farm, Rodriguez Farms. Two years ago, they lost several acres of strawberries because there weren’t people to work.Photo by Sierra Garcia
A Dream of Reform
Both the California and American Farm Bureau Federations want a solution that combines a better guest worker program with a pathway for existing undocumented fieldworkers to obtain legal status. Western Growers, a major farmer advocacy organization, wrote in a prepared statement from their president Tom Nassif that although they appreciate the Trump administration streamlining the guest worker program, a degree of amnesty for existing workers is also necessary.
Nassif testified before Congress earlier this year to the irreplacable contributions of undocumented fieldworkers, saying “The majority of those falsely documented, here illegally, however you want to phrase it, pay their state and federal income taxes as well as contribute to social security without any hope of ever collecting…[We need] a legal status for our longstanding, reliable, existing workforce and their families.”
Nassif stressed that this plea “is in no part political,” but “based upon the economic future needs of our industry.”
“[We need] a legal status for our longstanding, reliable, existing workforce and their families.” Western Growers head Tom Nassif testifies before the House Judiciary Subcommittee in April 2019. WESTERN GROWERS
Barring some sort of breakthrough – in mechanizing delicate harvests, in policy, in the willingness of American-born backs and hearts to bend–the outcome may well be a gradual strangulation of many types of grown-in-the-USA fresh produce. Farmers who can afford it will continue to raise wages to try and attract sufficient workers, a cost increase mirrored on the supermarket produce price stickers. Where possible, stores will import more fresh produce from abroad to soften the economic blow to consumers.
But for strawberries, in which labor accounts for half of the total production costs, the price per unit value (the value before processing) has already risen from 69 cents to $1.06 per pound over the last ten years – more than double the rate of inflation. Most of the increase has occurred since 2016.
As production costs creep up for strawberries, mushrooms, lettuce, asparagus, certain kinds of grapes, fresh cherries, and dozens of other fresh fruits and vegetables, some farmers will rip up crops they have tended for decades in favor of mass-planting walnuts or other crops that a machine can harvest with ease. Others, especially small farmers who can’t afford to raise wages enough, will continue to cut back their acreage each year, or give up their farms for good. Factors besides labor costs will influence these decisions, like water availability in drought-prone California, but ultimately farmers are unlikely to invest in crops too expensive for them to grow and for consumers to buy.
Michael says that regardless of their political beliefs, all western farmers know that they need immigrants. But gridlock in Washington has left him with little hope for improvement. He doesn’t think meaningful immigration reform for Californian farmers and farm workers will happen “until something breaks pretty badly – to the point where crops are rotting in the field.”
This article was first published by the …& the West Blog and is republished with permission. You can find the original post here.
WADDELL, Ariz. – On a brisk March morning, the engine of Selwyn Justice’s truck roared to life as he turned out of his driveway onto Peoria Avenue in Waddell, heading toward Surprise.
On a dirt road 15 minutes later, a cloud of dust was billowing behind him as a citrus orchard came into view. It was about 60 degrees and the morning sun drenched the trees as Justice, 30, a fourth-generation Arizona farmer, paused at the entrance of the orchard.
“We’re a vestige of the past here,” he said, digging the toe of his boot into the dirt. “Maricopa County’s presence in the citrus market is declining.”
A lot has changed since his family opened its ranch in 1928.
Between urban development, drought and disease, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the number of citrus farms in Arizona has declined by about 40 percent just since 2012 – only 317 farms remained as of a USDA report in 2017.
Once considered foundational to the Arizona economy as one of the “Five Cs” – citrus, cattle, copper, cotton and climate (for the state’s tourism industry) – citrus now accounts for far less than 1 percent of the state’s $23 billion agricultural economy. In 2010, the last packing facility in Mesa, Sunkist, closed due to low levels of production.
The reduction, according to Justice, is the result of changing water costs and availability for water-intensive crops like citrus and cotton, of climate change and of the development of hundreds of citrus farms into urban sprawl.
The USDA said national citrus production declined by about 50 percent between the 2007-2008 and the 2017-2018 seasons. About 6 million tons of citrus were produced in the United States in the latter period: Florida accounted for 36 percent, California 59 percent, and Texas and Arizona made up the final 5 percent.
As he looked at his orchards, Justice was joined around midmorning by a few thousand free citrus workers: the honeybees, who sleep in late. Citrus is generally self-pollinating, so the bees are welcome as helpers, but, for the most part, the trees do more for the bees than the bees do for the trees. In a marginal economic situation, however, the extra help is welcomed by growers. Besides, Justice says, “there are certain varieties that produce better with cross pollination” from bees.
Glenn Wright, a citrus expert at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, agrees.
“Most citrus varieties don’t need bees – they are self-pollinating, a phenomenon known as parthenocarpy,” Wright said.
Parthenocarpy, the development and growth of fruit without prior fertilization, is common in citrus produce, but that doesn’t mean pollination is a lost cause. Pollination can still be important for some varieties, including mandarin oranges.
Cahit Ozturk is a research technologist at Arizona State University’s Honey Bee Research Lab in Mesa. He says that having a few honeybee colonies near citrus orchards can contribute to crop quality and to the quantity of fruit.
“If the plant, either fruit or vegetable, has pollen or nectar, it means they need pollinators for better production,” Ozturk said in an email.
And even for the trees that do fine on their own, Justice is happy for the bees.
“They get to cruise around and collect pollen and have a good time out here, especially in the winter months,” Justice said. “It’s kind of a layover.”
On weekend mornings, Justice is awake by 6 a.m. and is at the orchard by 7:30. On a good day, he leaves by 4 p.m. The honeybees, in dozens of white box hives in a shaded clearing, take off work about the same time.
While the future may seem bleak, Justice sees a future for Arizona citrus. For one thing, people like it. Also, the growing popularity of “pick-your-own produce” farms lets some farmers go directly for retail dollars.
Justice, in fact, also operates Justice Brothers U-Pick, the longest continuously operated citrus orchard in the state, but has been in the pick-your-own business on a former University of Arizona research grove for two years. Justice acquired the land in 2016 and just finished the second year of sales at the U-Pick.
The ranch grows dozens of varieties of citrus, from oranges and grapefruit to pomelos and kumquats. Dozens of customers show up at the orchard each weekend to pick their own fruit.
“(It’s) about as personal as people get through picking the fruit,” Justice says.
And each morning of the season, which runs roughly from December to April in Arizona, he walks down the uniform citrus rows, picking grapefruits, oranges and lemons, then swings a full bag over his shoulder like Santa Claus.
“The nice thing about farming is you get to see the literal fruits of your labor,” he says. “I can come out and look at the orchard and say, ‘Yeah, I did a good job this year.'”
Editors note: Correction – May 27, 2019.
This May 22 Cronkite News story has been corrected after it misstated the history of Justice Brothers U-Pick. The family runs the longest continuously operated citrus orchard in the state, but has been in the pick-your-own business on a former University of Arizona research grove for two years.
CASA GRANDE – Gazing over the cotton fields on his 300-acre farm outside Casa Grande, Paul Ollerton weighed the risks and opportunities of a new crop that, come this summer, will be legal to grow for the first time in decades.
Ollerton, 64, is a third-generation farmer who has just harvested his 38th cotton crop, and he’s cautiously looking to get involved with industrial hemp.
“God knows we need something that’s a little bit more profitable than what cotton has been for the last few years,” he said.
Hemp holds promise and potential for farmers like Ollerton, who are looking to diversify their crops or find new ways to make money in farming. But it’s also a gamble.
Arizona law requires industrial hemp to have a concentration of THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, of less than 0.3 percent, That can be tricky to achieve; farmers might have to destroy everything in their harvest that exceeds that threshold.
If Ollerton gives hemp a try, he will likely start small, just to be safe.
“I tell everybody, ‘Be cautious and start with small acres and go from there, see what works for you on your farm,’” he said.
Hemp used to be considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance – a category that includes such drugs as heroin and ecstasy. But the 2018 Farm Bill, which President Donald Trump signed in December, changed that, opening the doors for farmers to grow hemp as an agricultural commodity. The bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it’s no longer an illegal substance under federal law.
Hemp can be used to make a lot of different products — from clothing and cosmetics to insulation, rope, plastic and food. It can also be grown for seed, fiber and oils, such as hemp-derived CBD, which is used for pain relief, anxiety and insomnia.
Arizona and at least 40 other states have enacted legislation to establish an industrial hemp program, Mindy Bridges, senior policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said in an email.
In some states, like Colorado, Kentucky and Kansas, the program is well underway. Arizona and others still are developing the rules that will govern the industry, including what to do with crops whose THC levels exceed the 0.3 percent maximum.
“There’s so many ways it might go,” said Brian McGrew, hemp program manager for the Arizona Department of Agriculture. “Complete destruction of the crop, as some states have done, if it tests over. It’s all going to be based on what resources are available for the grower and the state, and what technologies might exist.”
— Video by Imani Stephens/Cronkite News
The department appointed a seven-member advisory committee to work on developing the rules. One of its biggest hurdles, McGrew said, is trying to determine how to address the requirements limiting the THC threshold on crops. That is key for farmers, because every acre that goes to waste is money down the drain.
“That is my biggest concern, because you’re going to end up with quite a bit of money per acre tied up in a crop,” Ollerton said. “And you don’t want to end up in a situation after you’ve put all the money into it and you’ve grown it, and 120 to 150 days later you’ve got to destroy it because you can’t get the THC levels where they need to be for it to remain as hemp.”
Ollerton – whom everyone calls Paco, a nickname from an old Robert Mitchum Western movie, given to him by his father – co-chairs the committee. He has spent most of his life growing cotton, a pillar of the state’s economy.
“When I went to college, it wasn’t like when spring break rolled around I got to go to Mexico or skiing,” he said. “I always came home and worked. Same thing during the Christmas vacation.”
His grandfather, who ran a cotton gin, farmed and worked as a cotton broker after moving to Arizona from Utah about the time he served in World War I. Ollerton’s father started farming once he returned from World War II. Now, Ollerton’s two children are involved in agriculture.
“Agriculture runs in the blood. It’s a DNA defect,” he joked.
To him, farming is more than just a business. It’s his survival.
A Water-Friendly Crop?
For some time, hemp has attracted the attention of environmentalists over claims of it being the new water-friendly crop. Lawmakers and conservationists have said that hemp uses less water than cotton. In a state with an ongoing drought where farmers are already faced with not having enough water to farm all of their acres, implementing water-efficient commodities is critical.
Ollerton is skeptical. He says there has been no research in Arizona attesting to hemp’s lower water usage.
Abdel Berrada, a senior research scientist at Colorado State University who spent the past three years studying how the crop grows, said hemp may need less water than corn, but not by much. What he did find, though, is that hemp’s water consumption varies by location.
“Usually when you try to figure out how much water a plant uses, everything from rain to irrigation to the soil is taken into account,” Berrada said.
Because the Southwest doesn’t get much rain, farmers have to use irrigation to get a decent yield, he said.
“The bottom line, I’d say, is I don’t know if it uses less than cotton, but it does need water to grow and do well,” he added.
In Colorado, farmers have been growing industrial hemp since 2014. And the Centennial State has taken to the industry extremely well, said Zev Paiss, who created and served as the founding executive director of the National Hemp Association.
“Hemp touches on many different industries in a sustainable way,” Paiss said. “We are at the very beginning of discovering all the benefits of it. Many industries are tapping into it, a lot of jobs are being created, a lot of local governments are getting tax revenue, it has a wide variety of tax benefits.”
The legalization of industrial hemp received bipartisan support in Colorado and Arizona. In 2018, Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation backed by Republicans and Democrats that authorized the Arizona Department of Agriculture to license applicants to grow and process industrial hemp.
To Paiss, hemp’s bipartisan appeal comes from the fact that it has “so many benefits that are basic things- jobs, tax revenue for small towns. It’s good for farmers and it’s good for the land.” He added: “It’s about supporting our farmers, it’s about U.S. jobs, it’s about generating income both for cities and for states.”
Planting Hemp Sooner than Later
Arizona’s industrial hemp program was slated to start in August, but a bill proposed by Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, and signed into law by Ducey on Feb. 20, moved it to May 31. That means farmers can start planting hemp before the peak of the summer, when temperatures are too high.
Hemp and marijuana both come from the Cannabis sativa species, but they are not the same plant. Hemp has a very low concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is what gives marijuana its psychoactive effect.
“I like to tell everybody, expecting to get high on hemp is (like) expecting to get drunk on a case of O’Douls,” Borrelli said, referring to the non-alcoholic beer. “It’s impossible. You’re just going to really disappoint yourself.”
Because hemp and marijuana derive from the same species, Borrelli said, there has to be stringent licensing requirements in place. If somebody grows marijuana in their hemp fields and gets caught, he said, that grower will lose his crop and be in a lot of trouble.
“It’s interesting,” Ollerton said, “because it’s very similar looking, and we’re afraid that we’re probably going to have a lot of people walk in there and start pulling stuff off. But I tell them, ‘By the time you dried it, rolled it and smoked it, you’d probably die from smoke inhalation before you’d ever get high off of it because the THC levels are so low.’”
More Than Growing Hemp
Sean Dugan, a third-generation farmer and co-founder of Item 9 Labs Corp. in Coolidge, which grows, manufactures and sells marijuana products in dispensaries in Arizona and will be in six to 10 U.S. markets by the end of the year, also is looking to get involved with industrial hemp this summer, but on the processing side.
The company’s goal is to have a processing facility up in a year to handle up to 500 acres of hemp per year, he said. Dugan’s background is in dairy farming – his family moved to Arizona from Wisconsin in the 1960s – and he’s been farming in the state for 20 years, which is why he wants to head Item 9’s hemp division.
His only concern in joining the hemp industry is for the farmers.
“Truthfully, I think there’s going to be a lot of fast-talkers that want to make a quick buck,” he said. “That are going to sell farmers on bogus products, bogus seed or bogus genetics. That’s why at Item 9, we want to make sure they don’t get bamboozled into a failed crop or lose a bunch of money.”
He is betting on hemp taking less water than cotton does, which would make it significantly attractive as a crop in the desert.
“With the water situation going on, if some guys can save a little bit of water and be just as profitable, I mean a lot of these guys have farmland available to them, but they don’t have the water to farm it,” Dugan said. “So if they can actually utilize that little field and grow minimal amounts on it, it’s a savings to Arizona water and the farmers’ expenses. All the way around, it’s a good deal for everybody.”
A Complicated History
Hemp has had a complicated history in the United States. It was utilized for hundreds of years to make rope, twine and cordage – the ropes attached to the rigging of a ship – but it was never abundantly grown here, said John Dvorak of Boston, a hempologist who has studied the plant for 25 years.
The vast majority of the hemp that was used to make these products came from India, China, Germany and Russia, he said. Russia, for example, grew millions of acres of high-quality, low-cost hemp, so it didn’t make sense for American farmers to invest in growing it.
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 didn’t exactly make growing hemp illegal, but it put so much regulation on it – so much “red tape” – that farmers essentially stopped growing it, Dvorak said.
It made a brief comeback in World War II, when the Japanese invasion of the Philippines cut off hemp supplies to the Allies. In 1942, the government created a campaign called “Hemp for Victory,” and the Department of Agriculture produced a short film that encouraged farmers to grow hemp as part of the war effort.
As soon as World War II was over, though, the federal government ended incentives and, Dvorak said, “basically made hemp illegal again.”
Now, it may well be the next big thing in agriculture.
The Arizona Department of Agriculture and the industrial hemp program rules committee are still developing the program’s rules, which have to be completed by the end of April. They are also debating the program fees, including how much an industrial hemp license will cost; there will be four types of licenses: grower, harvester, transporter and processor.
The crop takes about 120 days from planting to harvesting. That means that if Ollerton begins planting hemp by June 1, he’d be harvesting some time in October.
“There is some risk,” he said. “And unfortunately in agriculture, the farmer takes most of the risk, if not all of it on the growing end.”
WASHINGTON – Clayton Honyumptewa says the Powamuya ceremony will be observed this weekend as usual on parts of the Hopi reservation, but the planting that traditionally follows the ceremony might not come until May.
The delay is just another example of the effects of climate change that have left dams dry, water scarce – and pushed planting from March to April and then to May, leaving little time for crops to grow.
“Sometimes they don’t even mature because it already gets cold in September,” said Honyumptewa, director for the Hopi Department of Natural Resources. “It’s been really rough on the farmers.”
It’s been really tough on tribes across the country, officials told a House panel looking at the effects of climate change on Native America. Honyumptewa was not there, but stories like his were repeated in testimony Tuesday by tribal leaders from Alaska, Washington and Arizona.
Video report by Micah Bledsoe/Cronkite News
An Inupiaq witness testified that melting glaciers are leading to erosion that threatens rural villages on the Bering Strait, and a representative of the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington said the tribe’s treaty-protected fishing has dried up, while rising seas endanger nearby communities.
Tohono O’odham Nation Vice Chairman Verlon Jose told the House Natural Resources subcommittee climate change has affected everything from farming and livestock to housing and infrastructure.
“We have been able to live off the land, with the land, and with the environmental conditions that it has,” Jose said. But the decades-long drought in Arizona has brought extreme heat and reduced groundwater and surface water needed by crops and livestock.
“As climate change has begun to disrupt both our traditional and modern ways of living, we have had to figure out ways to cope with these changes,” Jose said in his testimony.
The testimony came a day after the president of the National Congress for American Indians urged lawmakers in his annual State of Indian Nations address to take steps toward reversing climate change.
“The science is settled. The evidence? Undeniable. Our world is gravely ill, human beings are the cause, and only we can administer the cure,” said Jefferson Keel, the president. “Climate change threatens our wellbeing, places, and ways of life in every conceivable way.”
Honyumptewa said he sees it among Hopi ranchers, who cannot afford to properly feed and water their livestock because of scarce resources on the reservation. As a result, livestock and crops have both diminished.
“Some people wholly rely on that. I mean, that’s their livelihood, (their) income for a year,” Honyumptewa said.
Jose said climate change has blunted the tribes’ efforts to get members to return to a healthier, traditional diet as those foods have been “drastically impacted by significant changes in the average temperature that alters the phenology, or the seasonal life cycle, of traditional plants.”
“Our members go out to gather traditional foods and find that many are blooming out of season or not blooming at all as a result of climate change,” he said.
At the hearing, witnesses asked Congress for a seat at the table as the government grapples with climate change, and insisted indigenous experience and expertise should be part of any solutions atimed at reversing it effects.
“We as a community can use best practices, going back to our traditional ways as well as bridging the modern social lifestyles to address climate change,” Jose said.
And while some areas of the Hopi tribe are preparing for the Powamuya ceremony to inspire a successful growing season, Honyumptewa said the drought has made it harder to keep cultural norms alive.
“We need rain, we need water to do that. Rain, snow, all our ceremonies are geared to that,” he said.
“Hopi prophecy is all coming true. Climate change, the California wildfires, they were all predicted by Hopi elders telling us this is what’s going to happen,” Honyumptewa said. “It’s Koyaanisqatsi – a crazy world.”
Every day, southwestern Colorado rancher Matt Isgar starts an increasingly complex puzzle. The goal is to find food for his 135 cattle.
“Most of the pasture we used last year we’re not using this year because there’s no moisture,” Isgar said of the land he ranches in Hesperus, west of Durango. “There’s no new growth.”
With the dark red bull’s eye of exceptional drought looming over the Four Corners region, Isgar has lowered his grazing standards. He sold off 35 cows to stave off financial bleeding, but there are still costs.
“We’re spending more material and labor fixing fences and hauling water, and we’re supplementing with protein. So every day is more expensive to operate,” he said.
Hot and dry conditions have become an insidious foe to Colorado ranchers and farmers. While dry summers aren’t new, a winter and spring with little snow and rain have pushed parts of the state to get drier, faster. June marked the third warmest on record for the entire state. Colorado should soon see normal monsoon moisture, but that won’t help Rocky Ford cantaloupe farmer Greg Smith. The legendary local crop grows out on the southern eastern plains, another region dealing with exceptional drought.
“Most of the pasture we used last year we’re not using this year because there’s no moisture,” Matt Isgar said of the land he ranches in Hesperus, west of Durango.
Smith saw the writing on the wall with the spring’s low snowpack and only planted a third of his 100 acre farm.
“It’s just brown dry,” he said. “A match gets started on fire and you have a prairie fire that may run for miles.”
There’s a cost to leaving fields empty. Smith still treats the soil to prevent weeds. And financially, even with fewer acres planted, he has the same bills to pay. Even his retirement plans got delayed. His intention to build a second retirement residence was torched by the Spring Creek Fire which burned more than a 100,000 acres in southern Colorado.
“Actually, I think it’s probably going to be on hold for a couple of years to see how the place shapes up,” Smith said. “It’s not going to be the same as it was. That’s for sure.
Nearby Baca County was the epicenter of the 30s dust bowl, so dryland wheat farmer Brian Brooks said he’s seen worse. His crop yields are down by about 5 bushels per acre. Prices have decreased slightly. His only saving grace at the moment was above average rainfall from last year that supercharged the soil. Farming advances have allowed him to conserve that moisture for his benefit now.
That future that will likely mean hotter temperatures which can prolong drought. Roger Pulwarty, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said hotter temperatures can prompt flash droughts, like in 2012, when the majority of the U.S. dried in just a few months.
“This idea of intensification in drought is what makes drought very unique … By the time it’s intensified, we’ve used up all the buffers we’ve relied on, [like] cheaper grain. And now we’re at the mercy of a very, very strong event,” he said.
It feels like that hotter drier future has already arrived for hay grower Ed Zink. For 70 years he’s lived on Waterfall Ranch, near Durango. He typically sees the namesake waterfall on the nearby rocky cliffs — but not this year. It’s a first for Zink.
“It’s not even keeping the rock wet. It is dry,” he lamented.
Zink watched the 416 Fire, which burned more than 50,000 acres, come within a half mile of this property in June, another first. Ample water rights for his property have meant little difficulty for growing hay this year. But 70 years ago, Zink said his property was situated at the edge of alpine forest. He could see desert to the south. That desert has started marching northward toward his farm.
“I don’t know how to exactly put it in perspective,” he said. “It feels like the edge of that desert has moved 50 or 75 miles in my lifetime.”
Zink’s neighbor’s wells have started to dry up, another change in his lifetime. Groundwater is on the decline, and the cause is not fully known. La Plata County plans on a comprehensive study of the problem. The picture adds up to a landscape of more people making due with less water.