Arizona is known for several things -- a large hole in the ground called the Grand Canyon, lots of cacti, and near-year-round sunshine.
Lesser known is the fact that while agriculture is one of the state’s top industries ranking third among states that produce fresh market vegetables, the average age of the farmers that grow those veggies is significantly older than the national average.
Arizona’s John Deere operators’ average age is 61.1, signifcantly higher than the national average of 55.9.
“Our industry is really feeling the aging trend,” admits Mark Killian, Director of the state’s Department of Agriculture.
Also unique is the fact that female farmers have caught up, percentage-wise, with their male counterparts.
According to a report by the Economic and Business Research Center at University of Arizona’s Eller College of Business: “The profile of Arizona farmers and ranchers differs from the nation in several compelling ways that includes the largest percentage of female farmers of any state, far above the national average.”
And while the vast majority of those in American agriculture are white (95.4 percent), “that’s not the case in Arizona where that percentage is the lowest of any state by far. Arizona farmers are predominately Native American, 58.8 percent versus 1.7 percent nationally.”
The report also shows 19,086 farms in Arizona, down by 4.6 percent from research five years prior, with the larger locations (over 1,000 acres) getting larger and the smaller (under 50 acres) getting even smaller. In 2017, the average farm size in the state was 1,369 acres.
But farm size as well as gender and ethnicity of workers aren’t the concerns here; getting grayer is, and while older workers can’t be made any younger, it’s anticipated that younger workers can be enticed to enter the agricultural arena.
At least that’s the hope of a group that admits: “To continue this industry going strong, we need younger farmers and ranchers to fill the shoes of those looking forward to retirement.”
One of the major problems standing in the way of that goal is that despite the importance of agriculture in the state, Arizona does not acknowledge the ag industry as eligible for workforce development programs.
Although the Department of Economic Security recognizes over 60 workforce development programs ranging from healthcare to construction, agriculture is not among them and that keeps financial support and legal benefits from being allocated to beginning farmers or entities offering hands-on training.
Adding agriculture as a recognized field can provide qualified and committed labor for existing farmers and ranchers and a career pipeline for new farmers.
BRIDGING THE GAP
A fledgling Arizona Agricultural Workforce Development program “would be an opportunity to bridge the gap between small urban agriculture and production agriculture,” according to Nina Sajovec of the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a grassroots group she founded in 2008 to bring people together around food, environment, and social justice issues.
“Farmers everywhere are aging, especially so in this state, and young farmers are not entering agriculture,” she says, “so the question remains -- who is going to grow our food once these farmers and ranchers start to retire? Who will take care of the agricultural lands once these stewards step down or pass away?”
Agriculture apprenticeships have been proven to work with successful launches in Colorado and Wisconsin and now the Arizona effort is supported by groups like Young Farmers; Arizona Food Systems Network; Local First Arizona Foundation; Tohono O’odham Community Action, Iskashitaa Refugee Network and others.
“Ours is a small effort because we are a small rural community with a history of ranching and farming,” says Sajovec. “We started off helping families and schools to grow healthier foods and in that process learned there was a need to train younger farmers. We began offering a program of internships and apprenticeships to provide job-training opportunities because the state does not recognize agriculture as a work force development program.
“We reached out to other organizations and built a coalition, mostly connecting underprivileged populations of rural, tribal, and refugee organizations who were all trying to create networks where apprenticeship positions could be found or where farmers could find needed labor with some experience. We’re also working with advocacy agencies to pass a bill on the state level that will recognize agriculture as a workforce development program with some funding for employers to train new workers.
“We transition people to become lawyers and doctors, but while food may be a centerpiece of life, it’s often taken for granted and the agricultural arena is just not valued that much.”
Programs with a similar mission have been undertaken before, like the Arizona Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and Ranchers endeavor “to provide opportunities and activities to promote learning, growth, and leadership on issues that will enable 18-35-year-old agriculturalists to secure a better future in agriculture.”
According to Farm Bureau publicity: “This particular program is a fully-integrated part of the Farm Bureau at the county, state and national level. Young people who choose to focus their lives in agricultural careers can enhance their potential for success by becoming active in Young Farmers and Ranchers. In keeping with the Farm Bureau’s family oriented mission to improve net farm income and to serve as ‘The Voice of Agriculture’, the YF&R program is designed to help enterprising members achieve their goals and build satisfying lives in the profession they love.”
Farm Bureau Director Stefanie Smallhouse puts it this way: “The job of raising food and fiber is hard work and can be quite stressful. We’re dependent on the markets and the weather, both of which are out of our control, and this can be daunting to the younger generations. Combine that stress with the policy environment surrounding farming and ranching, and it can be a hard sell to your kids to take over the farm --- and some don't even want that future for their kids.
“Our Young Farmer and Rancher program brings interested youth together to build up their capacity and confidence through networking, marketing opportunities, and leadership development. They come out of the program with leadership skills to manage the regulatory environment, a broader network of friends and colleagues in the industry to lean on, and many new ideas for marketing their products to diversify their operations.
“In spite of the challenges, a life and career in agriculture has so much to offer that there will always be a line of succession. Those of us farming and ranching now just need to stay vigilant in keeping the path clear of obstacles, so the new ideas and fresh energy of the next generation can carry a strong Arizona agriculture well into the future.”
Two programs with different methodologies, but similar aims and goals --- both designed to “keep ‘em down on the farm.”