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Farmland is disappearing in Maricopa County; meet the coalition working to save it

Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-23 09:40:42-05

Last week, ABC15 shared the story of Blue Sky Organic Farms, on the verge of losing the land they lease because it's being sold to development.

David Vose is the farm's owner and says the amount of farmland Arizona is rapidly losing is concerning.

"We all assume food's just going to show up from somewhere else and somewhere else now is California and Mexico and other countries," Vose said. "And our own ability to feed ourselves is going to be severely limited because we have no long-term planning to make farming an option here."

He says that can lead to food insecurity, a problem we saw back in March when the pandemic began.

"Where distribution was bottlenecked up," Vose said.

Cindy Gentry, president of Sun Produce Cooperative, says local farms also ensure fair wages and fair prices for farmers. She says they use fewer pesticides on the food you eat and more soil means less pavement which can also keep the Valley cooler.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than half of all cropland ever created in Maricopa County has been converted to Urban Development.

USDA data shows that in the past 50 years, there's been a steady decline from 1.5 million acres in the 1970s to just under 500,000 acres today.

Data shows the Valley relies on so much food from other places that in a report for the Maricopa County Food System Coalition's Food Assessment prepared by Grant Falvo, it states "in the best-case scenario, where all of the remaining farmland is converted to producing food for local consumption and the county population remains at its current level, it was estimated that up to 10% of county residents could be sustained year-round on a typical American diet."

"It's not just that they're losing their land but where is the land available left for them to go to," Helene Tack, with Local First Arizona, said.

ABC15 spoke with over a handful of members of the Coalition for Farmland Preservation. They recently met with city and state leaders, bringing the problem to their attention and going over possible solutions.

"Our work could be considered futile if there is not a stronger priority on why we do the work," Darren Chapman with Tiger Mountain Foundation said.

One starts with the Arizona Land and Water Trust, a non-profit that works with willing landowners to obtain conservation easements.

"Pay you in cash for those development rights so that the land is permanently protected and it's in what we call perpetuity, so it's forever," said Executive Director of Arizona Land and Water Trust Liz Petterson.

Vose says another solution would be changing zoning laws and offering tax incentives to developers to not build on a portion of the land they buy.

"A developer buys a thousand acres and the city can say, 'fine, but you got to keep a hundred acres in farming,'" Vose said. "That's no different than saying you have to build a park, in my opinion."

Another option, the coalition says, is finding a way for cities or counties to buy that land, preserve it and lease it back to the farmers.

"We will not be able to solve our food insecurity crisis if we are not able to consider land insecurity hand in hand," said Adrienne Udarbe, Executive Director of Pinnacle Prevention.

These are just a few ideas that the coalition has and Dean Brennan with the Maricopa County Food System Coalition says in some cases, the tools to make these changes are currently available.

"In other cities, other states, that ethic does exist," Brennan said. "That's why those cities and counties and states have preserved (agricultural land) because there's a belief that it is of a significant value and we just need to educate and inform people in Maricopa County."

Rosanne Albright, Environmental Programs Coordinator with the city of Phoenix is also on the coalition. She sent ABC15 the following statement: "The City of Phoenix, through the Council-approved 2025 Phoenix Food Action Plan, is exploring mechanisms for farmland preservation and have taken that first step by participating in the formation of the Coalition for Farmland Preservation. We are working with the partners in the coalition to identify and advance policies that would protect and preserve farmland."