As Arizona contends with a 20-year dry-spell and declining water availability, the desert may provide a solution in drought-tolerant crops.
Drought-tolerant crops have been farmed by various Native American tribes for thousands of years and have steadily become more prevalent in today’s society, but still face challenges.
Climate change, drought and high demand forced the first-ever mandatory cuts to a water supply that 40 million people across the American West depend on — the Colorado River. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s projection will spare cities and tribes but hit Arizona farmers hard.
Nina Sajovec, director of the Ajo Sustainability Center for Agriculture, a nonprofit whose mission is to support the development of local sustainable food system through the preservation and revitalization of traditional Tohono O’odham crops and agricultural techniques, said not many farmers off the reservation utilize the crops to the extent they could.
An example of a crop that could be used more is tepary beans, which can be farmed using little water or by using monsoon rains alone. Other plants and trees such as okra, agave, amaranth, hibiscus, moringa trees, nopalito cactus and squash, have been able to survive in dry climates, such as deserts, with low levels of water
One drawback to these crops is slow grow times.
“They are not appealing, perhaps, to larger commercial growers because they take longer, especially if you’re waiting for the rains,” said Sajovec.
Requiring little amounts of water means they can be grown year-round.
Sajovec, who is also a farmer, noted that some farmers who are trying to conserve water are missing out on the potential of tepary beans and other drought-tolerant crops.
“A lot of Arizona farmers, who say, ‘I am water conscious, so I am not gonna grow through the summer,’ what they do is leave the field unwatered and unplanted,” said Sajovec.
Sajovec does empathize with farmers who are not only dealing with water supply issues, but tighter margins due to Covid.
“Farmers are super stressed out. In order to be a farmer and make a living at this point you are handling a million things,” said Sajovec. “The margins are extremely low and for any farmer who knows what they are doing, they have a plan and try to get as much money as they can from their land.”
With less wiggle room to work with, farmers may be hesitant to grow unfamiliar drought-tolerant crops, even though the market for them is steadily increasing.
“As part of our program, we have been following the market and it is slowly growing, but it is still hard,” said Sajovec.
Stella McPhee is a farm manager at Gregory’s Fresh Market, a nonprofit that works to restore meaningful food access and eliminate health disparities in underserved communities, and is an advocate for using drought-tolerant crops.
“Using drought hardy crops, first of all, you’re working with nature instead of against nature,” said McPhee.
She also highlighted how farmers are at the mercy of water availability.
“If you’re paying so much for water, by the time you end up getting your crop to market you, might end up breaking even,” said McPhee. “That’s the kind of thing that drives people out of the business or makes people go bankrupt.”
Similar to Sajovec, McPhee is aware of farmers letting crops furlough.
“Some of the other things that huge, large-scale growers are doing is letting their crops furlough in the summer time,” said McPhee.
Both Sajovec and McPhee expressed that incentives crafted around drought-tolerant crops could entice farmers to use these crops.
Sajovec gave a blunt assessment of incentives for drought-tolerant crops.
“There are really no incentives right now to think about traditional, indigenous, desert-adapted crops,” said Sajovec.
While incentives remain to be seen in the short-term and long-term future, there are a plethora of tax incentives available to farmers at the state and federal level.
Among the current incentives available to farmers is participating in the Conservation Reserve Program, CRP for short. The CRP was created in 1985 and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.
According to the Farm Service Agency, a federal agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the CRP’s long-term goal is to “re-establish valuable land cover to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and reduce loss of wildlife habitat.”
Earlier this year, the Biden Administration in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its goal to add four million acres to the CRP by increasing rental payment rates and the number of incentivized environmental practices allowed. As of this month the CRP has surpassed the four-million-acre goal.
While the CRP has been a forward-thinking initiative in trying to slow the effects of climate change, it does ultimately reduce and temporarily limit the number of acres that farmers can grow crops and generate profits.
Standing next to a dry field, his boots kicking up dust, farmer Will Thelander said: “More and more of the farm is going to look like this next year because we won’t have the water to keep things growing everywhere we want.”
Thelander, 34, manages almost half of the 6,000 acres his family farms under Maricopa-based Tempe Farming Co., much of it devoted to corn for cows. He’s not planning on growing that crop next year, opting for others that will be more profitable on less land.
For Thelander, he has considered getting out of farming and starting a trucking business. But he also sees hope in guayule, a drought-resistant shrub that could be used in the production of rubber. His family’s farm is participating in research for a tire manufacturer to see if it can be used on a large scale.
“This is my Hail Mary, trying to save farming for myself,” Thelander said.
Felicia Fonseca of the Associated Press contributed to this story.