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Former U of A researcher will celebrate his one-year anniversary in state post in June.

Lee Allen, Contributing Writer

April 4, 2024

4 Min Read
Paul Brierley
Paul Brierley of Yuma, Ariz. was appointed director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture by Gov. Katie Hobbs last year. As chief of the state’s agricultural regulatory agency, Brierley also serves in the governor’s cabinet as her chief adviser on agricultural issues.Todd Fitchette

Paul Brierley is one tall drink of water at six feet and several inches, a height that allows him to see over the tall corn to make sure the crops are growing as planned.

His current job as the director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture calls for him to keep an eye on both crops and critters, something he’s been doing since he was 3 years old working on the family farm in California doing everything from bailing hay to raising sugar beets and cannery tomatoes.

After becoming degreed as an electrical engineer, the family moved its agricultural operation to southeastern Arizona where he worked his way up to Director of the Arizona Farm Bureau.  A decade later he was hired as founding director of the University of Arizona’s Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture.

Safe to say, Brierley knows a bit about growing plants and animals in Arizona where he now supervises an agency of 300 dealing with issues of licensing and regulations as well as direct issues of field and ranch. He was appointed by Gov. Katie Hobbs and began on June 26, 2023.

“Paul represents the best of our agriculture industry here in Arizona,” Hobbs said.

In an exclusive interview with Western Farm Press, Brierley was asked, “Are you having fun yet?”

He replied: “Fun may not be the right word as the learning curve has been tough, but I’m really glad I’m in this job.  I had a good thing going at the Center of Excellence, but I was intrigued when approached about the directorship. Now I drive to the state capital every day and am awed that I’m a part of that mechanism where, as former president Harry Truman noted — ‘The buck stops here.’”

Related:YCEDA chief executive tapped to serve as Arizona’s new ag director

Immersed in politics

Brierley, who used to get frustrated by the politics of agriculture, is now smack in the middle of them. “I had a revelation about the bickering within politics when I understood that it’s people with different ideas trying to get their concepts to prevail — sometimes you win, sometimes you compromise, and because of work by my predecessor and those workers on the department teams, that is beginning to happen.”

Asked, ‘What will farmers and ranchers in Arizona and throughout the West want to applaud about your agenda?’, he replied: “We know that agriculture is the largest user of water in our state and, in my opinion, agriculture is one of the best things we can do with our water.

“There are storm clouds on the horizon that threatening state ag because water quantity is an existential threat. It’s a challenge that brings with it a challenge. There is no regulation of groundwater withdrawal outside designated Active Management Areas (i.e., rural).  Regulation is needed. Much of agriculture in threatened basins is worried along with neighbors whose wells are going dry. They want regulation to make sure their operations stay sustainable and if we get this right, it will be a good thing for agriculture in the long run.”

Related:New Ariz. ag director positioned for success

Through the use of dispassionate adult discussion and partnerships, Brierley hopes to grow the non-regulatory side of the department.  “We’re working on resilient food systems and bringing in federal grant programs, efforts like the Arizona Grown program, things that keep our agriculture thriving and productive despite environmental challenges.”

Water concerns

Water is at the top of the list right now. “I hope to help navigate things to where the solution to having less water is not to have less agriculture, just a different kind of agriculture. I want there to be choices.”

Regarding the University of Arizona’s “Future of Agriculture and Food Production in a Drying Climate” project, he was emphatic: “I took the job as commission chair saying, I want this to be more than a report on a shelf. Part of our charge was to implement the plan with limited funding and we’re looking to entice foundations, private entities and federal funding to sponsor our ideas. Which in itself is another chicken-egg thing because nobody’s going to fund you unless you have a well-defined plan.

“Arizona’s at the bullseye of dry and hot agriculture. We’re facing it. We’re living it. It’s up to us to solve it because the rest of the world is going to need the answers we come up with.”

And while new answers are being sought, Arizona’s No. 1 Ag Man says, “Don’t forget that there are existing ideas that have yet to be implemented. If you sit down at a table with people of diverse backgrounds — but mutual interests — you can get a lot done putting good ideas down on paper ready to implement when funding is available.”

In the meantime, it’s back to work with cows and crops and climate issues. “We’re making the department more accessible by revamping the website and we’re focusing on the area of food resiliency under the Arizona Grown program. The ag industry in Arizona has an advocate in the Department of Agriculture.”

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