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Organic farming takes root in Arizona, strong growth predicted

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WASHINGTON – For just over a year, Alegria Hayes and Lyle Ford have been growing micro greens and cacao organically on five acres of land in Sonoita, Ariz.

Hayes started growing the plants after moving from New York City to the desert, where she said she couldn’t find the type of natural, raw foods that make up 100 percent of her vegan diet.

At the urging of her partner, she later expanded her own private garden to what is now known as Awaken Organics, run out of a 10-by-20-foot greenhouse.

“We’re a very small operation, we produce 60 to 80 pounds a week,” said Hayes, who is working to get her farm certified as organic.

Small or not, Hayes and Ford are part of a growing move toward organic farming in Arizona, where the number of certified organic farms nearly tripled, from 26 in 2006 to 77 in 2008, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The state increase mirrors the exponential growth of organic farms across the nation, where the Agriculture Department says such farms jumped from 40 in 1997 to more than 12,941 in 2008. And the trend is expected to continue, with another tripling of organic farms between now and 2015, according to a report by the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Foundation spokeswoman Denise Ryan said that recent changes in eating habits of Generation X have fueled the demand for certified organic produce and products. She attributes that increased demand to the public perception that healthy eating will improve overall well-being.

“I think we have a raised consciousness in this country and never before has health been more imperative,” Ryan said. “Organic farming provides a healthier alternative that is manifested in human health and economic health.”

Even with its newfound popularity, however, certified organic farms still accounted for only 13,742 acres of the 26.1 million farm acres in the state in 2007 – about 0.05 percent of the total, according the Agriculture Department statistics. The organic acreage in the state doubled in 2008, to just over one-tenth of one percent.

Arizona Farm Bureau spokeswoman Julie Murphree said she has noticed the increase and expects the trend to continue. She stressed, however, that standard farming and certified organic practices are both “extremely valuable, extremely healthy and extremely necessary in the food continuum.”

Murphree defines the “food continuum” as the range in types of farms.

“If we don’t embrace the entire food continuum we will not be able to produce the abundant and nutritious agriculture in Arizona that we do today,” Murphree said.

Hayes’ farm is not officially certified organic, but she is working toward it. The process to take her farm from the current certification of naturally grown to the next step, certified organic, requires her to keep up with paperwork and open her farm to peers who serve as inspectors.

Though some may be overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork – certified farmers have to log just about everything, from when each area was cleaned to what type of fertilizer was used – Hayes says it makes sense and actually helps her and her partner manage a farm as newcomers.

“We come from the outside, we’re not farmers for generations,” Hayes said.

Janice Smith said that although the certification process is a “tremendous amount of paperwork,” it is worth it because it keeps farmers accountable.

“It’s very worth the effort, not just for yourself but for the consumers eating your food,” said Smith. She and her husband, Byron, run an organic farm three hours north of Sonoita, in Wilcox.

Several years ago, the Smiths were also getting their start in organic farming, like Hayes. Today, their Sunizona Family Farms is run with the help of family and about 23 year-round, full-time employees.

Sunizona has been an Arizona certified organic farm since 2009. Of the 300 acres on the farm, only about 20 are used to grow seasonal crops and another three acres are used for year-round fruit and vegetable production in greenhouses there.

Smith said that besides being held accountable by the certification board, Sunizona has an open-door policy that lets any customer come in for a tour at anytime.

Sunizona takes organic one step further, describing its operation as “veganic,” meaning farmers there do not use any animal products in the production of their crops.

“We feel this is the future of farming,” Smith said. “We’re living in a time … where people want to know who grows their food.”

For Hayes, it’s been hard work so far, but she said she’s enjoying her new endeavor. She said being organic has been simple because, “nature takes care of everything.”