Farm Progress

Don Butler – Western grower to rural problem solver

Don Butler, 88, retires after 66-year career in Western agriculture; the last decade as director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture.Butler, an Arizona rancher, counseled two U.S. presidents on agricultural issues and provided guidance to numerous state and national agricultural organizations. 

December 10, 2013

7 Min Read

As a young boy in the 1930s, Donald Butler Jr. donned layers of winter clothing as he and his father Don Sr. lit smudge pots to battle frigid, grove-threatening winter temperatures on the family’s lemon and avocado farm in Carpinteria, Calif.

“My Dad and I would get up at 2 o’clock in the morning, light the pots, and put them out after the sun rose,” Butler reflects. “Then I’d walk or ride my bike three to four miles to school.”

After school, young Don would come back home, fill the pots with diesel fuel, and relight the pots to ward off another cold night.

Technology brought improvements to the Butler family farm. They were one of the first citrus growers to install newfangled wind machines powered by a five-cylinder Kinner aircraft engine.

Don Jr. reminisced about these and other experiences as he sat down with Western Farm Press upon his retirement this fall as Director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture (ADA).

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Butler led the ADA at its Phoenix headquarters from 2003-2013. While the Butler clan lived in Tucson, the family patriarch, Don, drove to Phoenix Sunday afternoons, worked the week in the office, lived in a nearby apartment, and then headed home Friday afternoons. For 10 years.

Now retired from the ADA and a mere 88 years young, Butler pledges to spend more time with his wife Blue, their six children, 13 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.

“My bride and children thought it was time for me to come home to Tucson,” Butler said with serenity in his voice.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed working in agriculture – the people and the industry.”

Butler is looking forward to family time. Though retired by the book, Butler plans to continue to dangle his spurs in agriculture as a consultant to transport feeder calves from Mexico to Arizona and California.

A career of giving back

Butler’s professional 66-year career includes rich appreciation for his experiences, tireless dedication, and deep respect for agriculture. It has included a mix of trials and tribulations, including serving for two U.S. presidents.

Following high school, Butler enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Three years later, he enrolled at the University of Arizona and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in animal husbandry.

Butler went to work in Phoenix at the Tovrea Land and Cattle Company which at one time was the world’s largest feedlot with 30,000 cattle. Today, the land is covered by commercial development.

Butler’s resume also includes work with the Southern Arizona Bank and Trust in Tucson and the First National Bank of Arizona in Yuma. Then he worked for Producer’s Livestock in Yuma, and then was employed by the Coronado Cattle Company in Tucson; a cattle management company he later purchased.

The rancher served as president of the Arizona Cattle Feeders. On the national level, he was the chairman of the National Cattleman’s Association. In the early 1980s he served as the chairman of the U.S. Meat Export Federation Board.

“We helped open the Japanese market for U.S. beef,” Butler said.

With a growing resume of service to agriculture, President Reagan selected Butler for a two-year post on the President’s committee on trade and negotiations. President George Bush Sr. asked him to serve two additional terms and Butler agreed.

For a decade, Butler served on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange board of directors (1988-1998). The California native served with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco where he chaired the group’s agricultural advisory council.

A decade ago, Butler received a phone call from a feedlot owner about the ADA’s search for a new director. Butler was encouraged to toss his hat into the ring. The governor hired Butler.

“My greatest challenge as ADA director in the early going was bringing the agricultural industry closer together with the department,” Butler said.

Improved levels of trust and support between the two entities were needed and Butler helped bring the two closer together.

Food safety job one 

Another top ADA priority for Butler was food inspection. The agency’s livestock division was understaffed yet charged with mandatory slaughterhouse inspections, milk inspections, and other related services.

Butler also worked to create a better and more efficient produce inspection program for ADA inspectors. The agency moved its inspection of produce grown in Mexico headed to the U.S. from the Mexico side of the border just across the international border near Nogales, Ariz. This helped decrease inspection costs.

There has not been a single food safety recall in Arizona on Butler's watch.

Butler discussed the joint cooperation between the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and ADA over the years. He noted how the two agencies responded after an outbreak of e. coli O157:H7 in California-grown spinach in 2006 which sickened 71 people in five states.

The California leafy greens industry, CDFA, and others developed a leafy green marketing agreement (LGMA) program designed to create a safer supply of leafy greens. ADA followed suit with a similar LGMA program.

One of the biggest challenges Butler faced during his tenure has been decreased funding of the agency. The Great Recession and related funding cuts from the federal government and elsewhere have taken a heavy toll on the ADA’s coffers.

The ADA had 300 employees when Butler came on board. Today, the number is about 240; a 20-percent reduction in the last decade.

“We are doing more with less,” Butler said.

The ADA budget is about $25 million dollars. About two-thirds come from the federal government, fees, and grants. The remaining third ($8 million) is from state taxpayers.

The ADA budget today is less than the department’s budget in 1991.

Tough decisions

One of the hardest hit programs due to waning dollars was ADA state border inspection stations in San Simon, Yuma, Parker, and Blythe.

Inspectors check shipments for pests and diseases plus contraband, and quiz passengers. Since many of these shipments are headed to California, the Arizona inspections help prevent problems from entering the State of California.

When the ADA was facing initial inspection station closings, (then) California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura provided $350,000 to help fund inspectors at the San Simon station on Arizona’s eastern border on Interstate 10.

Butler speaks fondly of Secretary Kawamura and their close working relationship over the years. Kawamura stepped down from the post several years ago and was succeeded by Karen Ross.

Butler is proud of the ADA’s fight against the Asian citrus psyllid, the top pest facing the western citrus industry. The psyllid is the primary vector for the disease Huanglongbing (HLB) which has killed every tree infected with the disease worldwide.

Arizona and California have the insect. Arizona has no confirmed HLB finds. California had a single HLB confirmation in the Los Angeles area several years ago yet none since.

Another key ADA accomplishment, Butler says, is the elimination of a glassy winged sharpshooter infestation in residential citrus in Cochise County about five years ago. The infestation threatened the state's young wine grape industry.

Butler asked Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano for emergency funding to fight the pest which was approved. The ADA launched a trapping and a door-to-door insecticidal spray programs. The sharpshooter infestation was snuffed out.

Turning to the ADA and its role as “guardians for consumers and their food supply,” Butler is disheartened that consumers are largely unaware of the department’s role and importance. The lack of consumer understanding remains a problem across agriculture.

Butler said, “A customer can go to a restaurant and be unhappy if it takes 15 minutes to receive their meal. They don’t understand that it took two years to get the steak from the ranch to the kitchen.”

With Butler’s retirement, the agency’s Associate Director Jack Peterson is the interim director while a search is underway for a permanent director.

Moving forward, Butler says agency funding is the ADA’s greatest challenge. That said, he offered praise for the hard work and dedication of ADA employees.

“ADA is here to serve the people of Arizona. I’m pleased to say they do a pretty darn good job,” Butler concluded.

So has Butler.

More good reads from Western Farm Press:

Apple’s revamped ‘Siri’ takes on agriculture’s questions

LGMA addresses food safety issues with regulators

California: Home of the food lawsuit

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