Urban growth could push Arizona farmers to Mexico
Cronkite News Service
Feb. 17, 2007 12:00 AM
Urban growth into Arizona's farmland will push farmers to take part of the
state's $6.3 billion-a-year agriculture industry into Mexico, the state's
agriculture director said.
"The growers are going to go to Mexico. They're looking there now," Donald
Butler, director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, said Thursday in
an interview. "You keep pushing and pretty soon you're going to have a
situation like you do with oil. It's going to be imported," Butler said.
"The growers here are going to go to Mexico and produce the crops and send
them back up."
Butler said he doesn't see a balance developing between agriculture and the
population influx that has made Arizona the fastest-growing state in the
"They're going to come, and they have to be housed someplace, whether it's
prime farmland or not," he said. "I think agriculture is going to get the
Butler said that's because the land is more valuable to a developer than to
Arizona lost 37 percent of its farmland between 1950 and 2000 to either
residential, industrial or business uses, according to a 2003 report from
Northern Arizona University's Center for Sustainable Environments.
Butler said he remembers when Arizona had 500,000 to 600,000 acres of
cotton. Last year, it was around 220,000 acres, and he said he has heard
it's now around 180,000 acres.
Asked what the state could do to keep agriculture strong in the long run,
Butler said, "I guess the easy answer would be to stop putting concrete down
on good farmland."
Butler said his department needs to do a better job of educating people
about what agriculture adds to Arizona.
"People don't realize the effort, the capital and everything that goes into
agriculture," he said. "It's much easier to go to Safeway or Bashas' or the
The state is the nation's second-largest producer of head and leaf lettuce,
spinach, cantaloupes, honeydew melons, broccoli and cauliflower.
Butler said the move of farms out of the country could make it more
difficult to keep food safe.
He also pointed out that any food-borne illness outbreak would be more
difficult to trace in imported food.
"People say, 'is it safe food?' They can do things in Mexico that we can't
do here in pesticides and in other areas." Butler said.
Produce distributors are working with Mexican growers to establish safety
measures for their crops, he said, adding that such corporations as Wal-Mart
are demanding a specific level of safety in the food that they purchase.
Butler said Sonora is the most advanced state in Mexico in terms of
livestock and crops.
"It's a lot of money, and they take care of it," he said.
Butler added, however, that the 1,500 trucks passing through the port of
Nogales each day carry produce from as far away as Guatemala and Chile.
While agriculture inspectors monitor what enters Arizona, it's impossible to
inspect every truck and every cargo container, he said.
He said another border issue affecting Arizona growers is the availability
of labor to work in the fields.
Butler said that in some Yuma lettuce fields, for example, only 20 workers
are thinning the fields when 60 workers are needed for the job.
Butler said he favors a program to bring in field workers from Mexico
"because you don't have the workforce in the United States that's willing to
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