Squeezed by Drought & Development, Citrus Shrinks in Arizona Economy

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.”

Selwyn Justice, a fourth-generation farmer in the West Valley, says he sees a future for citrus farming in the state despite development and other challenges. (Photo by Sarabeth Henne/Cronkite News)

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.

Even though bees are not needed for some citrus, Selwyn Justice welcomes any help he can get from local hives. (Photo by Sarabeth Henne/Cronkite News)

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.

Justice Brothers grows dozens of varieties of citrus, from oranges to kumquats to grapefruit. (Photo by Sarabeth Henne/Cronkite News)

“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.

Partnership between barley farmers and beer makers saves water

CAMP VERDE – Zach Hauser, like many farmers in the Verde Valley, takes pride in his land and the crops he grows.

Normally this time of year, rows of corn, alfalfa, carrots and watermelon would cover his acreage. But today, two sections of his property look like a farmer’s worst nightmare: fallow land strewn with dead vegetation and weeds.

That’s by design.

Hauser swapped out some of his usual thirsty crops – which require flood irrigation from the Verde River during scorching summers – for barley, which uses less water.

Zach Hauser, 27, is a third generation farmer who has converted acres of corn on his farm to barley, which uses 37 percent less water than corn. (Photo by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News)

“Normally on that ground, we’d be planting corn,” Hauser said. “We wouldn’t be planting until the first of May, and we’d use water all summer. With the barley, we’re planting it in late January, early February, and we’re done watering it by the end of May.”

Hauser made the change as part of a collaboration among local farmers, investors and the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit. The group worked with Hauser and Hauser Farms and nearby Speck Farms to swap 144 acres of summer corn for winter barley, and they’re now seeing the fruits of that labor.

Sinagua Malt – a malt house built specifically to encourage Verde Valley farmers to plant barley – turns that grain into a key ingredient of craft beer, which it sells to stores and restaurants around the state, including O.H.S.O., the Wren House and Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. in metro Phoenix. A malt house takes the unprocessed grain and turns it into malt, which is then used to make beer.

“Just knowing that something is grown locally – that it basically goes from farm to plate for food, or that it goes from farm to mug for beer – really makes a difference to consumers,” said Chip Norton, president and principal shareholder of Arizona’s first malt house.

Making of malt

Local farmers rely on the Verde, which the nonprofit American Rivers listed as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in America in 2006, according to National Geographic. The Nature Conservancy considers it still at risk.

The collaboration saved 47 million gallons of river water last June, said Kimberly Schonek, the Verde River program director for the Nature Conservancy in Arizona. June is when the river is at its lowest and saving water matters most.

It wasn’t as easy as simply asking the farmers to swap crops; after all, barley usually doesn’t make as much money as corn. To make the effort viable financially, they built Sinagua Malt.

Yann Raymond checks bags of malt barley that’s processed and ready for brewers. (Photo by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News)

Sinagua – Spanish for “without water” – is a public benefit company, which means it puts more value on public good than profit.

“The big number to us is the amount of water that’s staying in the (Verde River) in the summer months,” Norton said.

He started Sinagua Malt with the Nature Conservancy in 2016 after he did a similar enterprise with Many Rivers Brewing Co. in Colorado.

Norton said efforts to help protect the environment make a difference with consumers.

For example, Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. in Gilbert, which Norton said is Sinagua Malt’s biggest customer, markets its products with an emphasis on “naturalism and conservation” on its website’s homepage.

Verde River plays key role

Arizona has been in a drought for 21 years, said Nancy Selover, the Arizona state climatologist. Because of climate change and increasing population across the Southwest, the Colorado River – which supplies water to 40 million Americans – dries up before reaching the Sea of Cortez.

The partners in this project want to protect the Verde River, which begins near Paulden, Arizona, from the same fate. The Salt and Verde rivers are primary water sources for metro Phoenix. To compensate for dwindling surface water, cities pump groundwater or draw from the Central Arizona Project, which also supplies Colorado River water to Tucson.

Hauser sees multiple benefits

Hauser joined the Nature Conservancy project not only to make money and save water, but also to help protect his land from development. His family has been farming in Camp Verde since the late 1960s and now owns the land, much of which it had leased until the late 2000s.

“I always thought that it was ours when I was a little kid,” Hauser said. “You don’t understand what a lease means or owning means, so I always … felt like we owned it. And after I got older – and there was threat of development to the ground – that we eventually bought it.”

In the mid-2000s, developers were buying Camp Verde property for housing developments, and the Hausers feared they’d lose the large parcels they were leasing, Hauser said. The Nature Conservancy intervened, helping the Hausers buy those parcels and place easements on the property.

Those easements make it illegal to develop the land, whether by his family or any future owners, Hauser said.

“We weren’t worried about my grandfather or my father or myself wanting to sell it to develop it,” he said, “but you can’t see into the future, and you don’t know how your kids or grandkids or great-great-great grandkids are going to turn out. Hopefully, they wouldn’t want to sell it to a developer, but now it is impossible.”

The business of barley

This first year, Hauser’s farm and Speck Farm didn’t see the returns they would have had if they’d grown corn, but the Nature Conservancy paid the difference. In the future, said Schonek, the conservancy’s Verde River program director, the malt will return the same profit corn fetches.

“Without having a malt house, the only thing you can do with barley is sell it for cattle feed, which is not economically viable for farmers,” Schonek said.

The Nature Conservancy has invested nearly half a million dollars to convert acreage into barley to compensate the farms and Sinagua Malt, she said, adding, “It’s not outside the range of what we are spending on other conservation projects.”

“Achieving the public benefit is what drives (Sinagua Malt),” Schonek said, “but it’s still a corporation that has to make money and will have shareholder dividends in the future.”

All the conservancy’s dividends will go back into Sinagua Malt to achieve the organization’s five-year goal of converting 600 acres to barley, saving 200 million gallons of water each year in June.

Hauser said he’d be happy to convert more acreage if the malt house expands.

“We’ll probably be converting more of our ground to drip irrigation instead of flood irrigation,” Hauser said, “which will save more water than we’re already saving now. So, we’re just trying to lead the front now and save as much water as possible, but still make an honest living.”

Sinagua malt barley can cost 20 percent more than competitors’ products, but the sustainability angle seems to have struck a chord with local brewers. Norton said the malt house brought in about $50,000 in its first year, all of which will go to expand it.

– Video by Jordan Evans