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Arizona farmers having trouble finding, keeping land

Posted at 6:24 AM, Dec 16, 2020

PHOENIX — When the pandemic hit, local farmers played a vital role in keeping up with the high demand at food banks and grocery stores. But as parts of the Valley continue to grow, some farmers say they're being pushed out.

That's the story at Blue Sky Organic Farms in Litchfield Park. Sara Dolan is the farm's general manager. She runs it with her partner David Vose, a family business for the past 26 years.

"We grow right around 110 different varieties of vegetables along with strawberries, melons, things like that," Dolan said.

With 30 full time employees, it's safe to say the farm is their livelihood. But pretty soon, it may be no longer. Dolan says they own 20 acres but they lease an additional 23.

"The person we've leased it from the past 20 years has decided to sell to Fulton Homes," Dolan said. "So, they're going to build over 750 homes."

Dolan says they'll have to relocate, but buying farmland isn't cheap and development is taking over what little land is left.

"We can't afford property between $130-$140 thousand an acre," Dolan said.

It's a problem that troubles Cindy Gentry, the president of Sun Produce Cooperative, which buys food from farms like Blue Sky Organic Farms and distributes it to organizations that help feed families with little access to fresh and healthy food.

"Here in the valley, four of the main farmers market farms are that close to losing their land," Gentry said.

Gentry and Dolan are now both part of the Coalition for Farmland Preservation, which is in the early stages, trying to find a way to preserve agricultural land. They're looking at all options from the owners, the farmers, the developers and the municipalities they're in.

"I feel like there's not a lot of support on any government level, whether it's local or statewide to preserve farmland," Dolan said.

For Blue Sky Organic Farms, time is running out because Dolan says their lease is up in June. But she still has hope that through this group, future farmers will one day have a place to grow their roots.

"I don't know if it'll be in time to save us but hopefully it'll be in time to save other farms," she said.

That coalition is a collaborative effort with Local First Arizona. They have 11 different people on a committee working to find solutions. ABC15 will take a closer look at what some of those solutions are, in the second part of this story expected to air next week.