Agriculture in the Desert Southwest

A recent comment prompted me to think about agriculture and grazing in the desert Southwest–especially since I was born in Texas, one of those borderland states that can be considered either “South” or “Southwest” depending on who you ask. Parts of Texas are lush and green. Other parts are scrubby and arid, desert like. Droughts are often an issue. But we talk about fruit and vegetables from Texas, about the longhorn cattle. Whole Foods originated in Austin, near the river. As I think about this, I want to point out that the Midwest (and other regions) by no means offer the solution. The Midwest has a whole slew of problems itself. But this post will focus on the American West–and specifically the American Southwest.

Here are some facts, taken from Agriculture in the Classroom, about Arizona:

  •  The top agricultural crop commodities in Arizona are lettuce, cotton, and hay. Lettuce production represents 14% of the state’s total farm receipts. Yuma Arizona is the winter lettuce capital of the world. Cotton produced 553,950 bales representing 6% of total farm receipts for the state. Hay was 5% of farm receipts.
  • Arizona grows enough cotton each year to make more than one pair of jeans for every person in the United States. The top agricultural crop exports are vegetables, hay, cotton, and cottonseed.
  • Arizona ranks 2nd nationally in its production of cantaloupe, honeydew melons, head & leaf lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and lemons.
  • Arizona alfalfa yield led the nation at 8.3 tons per acre compared to 3.4 tons nationally

 In an earlier post, I referred to the irrigation that occurs in the Southwest to sustain these crops. Of course, with the water rights issues that surround many places in the Southwest (and generally in the West)–irrigation is limited in some areas, because the water is intended for people further down the line.

Arizona’s agricultural system would not be possible without significant irrigation of these crops. As I mentioned in the last post, salinization of the soil becomes a problem in heavily irrigated areas. This type of irrigation doesn’t occur throughout the state, of course, and particularly in the mountainous areas sheep and cattle make more sense; it is rife with poor soil that is difficult to irrigate. The problem with some grazing practices lies not in the grazing itself. These lands have hosted grazing animals for centuries. The problem occurs with the type of grazing–the herds aren’t really roaming. They eat the tasty plants (usually flower herbs, “forbs”) and leave the less tasty plants–the plants we often refer to as scrubby plants. This provides an opportunity for “less desirable” plants to move in, which decreases biodiversity.

These are problems, of course.

But what spurred this post: the comment on the previous post that mentioned “local” foods come from Texas or Colorado–and how people in the Southwest should be terrified that they don’t have local foods–that for them, local might really mean that the food is grown in their backyards. In part, as the commenter pointed out, this has to do with the aging population of farmers.

Quick Fact: There are more people in jail in the US than there are farmers. Less than 1% of the population claims farming as an occupation and less than 2% of the US population live on farms.

Quick Fact:  40% of farmers in the US are 55 years or older.

400 Mile Radius from Approximately Cedar Rapids, IA

According to Congress, local food can come from within 400 miles of the place it is sold. 400 miles! This is why there are so many definitions on the individual level of what should constitute local.

But then, if you live in an area where there is no local produce–that is produce grown within say, 100 miles, then perhaps it’s good to know that your produce is still relatively local, that it could travel to you within one (long) day on the road. This is arguably better than food that comes to you from even further away, food that was put on a container ship on an airplane. Arguably.

What happens when we start to look at this problem closely? We need more farmers. We need more local food options. Or perhaps–as a friend from Arizona pointed out (she’s done a lot of research on water rights, water use, etc.)–people simply need to stop living in these climates that are unsustainable. Los Angeles has the second highest population of any city in the US, followed by Houston, Texas (#4), Phoenix, Arizona (#5), San Antonio, Texas (#7), San Diego, California (#8), Dallas, Texas (#9), and San Jose, California (#10).

True, people lived in these places long before settlers came to North America. They lived their lives differently than we did though–and some of them simply walked away from their settlements. The Hohokam come to mind. The Hohokam created hundreds of miles of canal systems to irrigate their crops in Arizona. And, as far as I know, we don’t understand why the Hohokam left this system. We don’t even know what they called themselves. Hohokam is what later indigenous peoples in this region called them.

How do we learn how to live in the climates we have, in the locales we’ve created by modifying the natural land? How do we get people interested in farming, in growing their own food in gardens? To this last one–people growing their own food in gardens–community gardens are becoming increasingly popular and entire degrees are now devoted to “Community and Regional Planning” and “Urban Gardening” and “Food Access,” just to name a few. But some people still claim they don’t have time. Some schools are starting to re-integrate gardens into the curriculum, to allow kids to grow food (and other plants), but this hasn’t become widespread. How do we help people realize there is value in food production, that it’s not something we can just pass the buck on?


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