YUMA, Ariz. (KYMA, KECY) - Agriculture is a staple in the desert southwest, especially in Yuma County which has acted as an agricultural hot spot for the better part of over a century.
A lot of that comes in part to a great water source from the Colorado River that Yuma has senior water rights to, great land for crops and the advantage of year-round sunshine in what is the longest growing season in the entire country.
With over 230,000 acres of farmland, Yuma County represents a multi-billion dollar net for the local economy. And according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Yuma County contributes to over 29% of market value products sold in the entire state.
“Yuma is to agriculture like what Detroit is to autos, or Silicon Valley is to computers and technology," said Dr. George Frisvold. "It's on that scale of concentration and national importance.”
Dr. George Frisvold is an Extension Specialist in Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Arizona and has studied deep into the agriculture scene in Arizona.
But even despite the success in the desert southwest, as a lot of research shows, recent difficulties have made it harder than ever to prosper as a farmer.
For growers like Yuma's John Boelts, a grower and owns Premium Desert Farms, he is optimistic about the future of agriculture in this region, but it's outside factors that drive concerns countrywide that are even affecting this region in some ways.
And some of that blame is on, he says, is on congress who in some ways limits the amount of labor workers they can get to their farms here. Something he has seen first hand in over 30 years of farming.
“The number one way that we can really improve agriculture’s opportunities in Yuma and beyond all over the United States is for congress to listen to agriculture," said Boelts.
And there are several contributing factors that harm the agriculture world that he refers to:
- Labor shortages--driven mainly by political policies
- Government regulation--makes it tough on businesses like agriculture to thrive
- Cost/Expenses vs profit--direct correlation of regulation, leading to not enough profit brought to farms
- Competition to scarce water--recent water cuts to the Colorado River, the main source of irrigation for many areas in the West, leads to concern about water rights
- Global climate change
So what has historically been one of America's most important industries now has a diminished role in terms of job creation and gross domestic product.
"Looking down the road, we're at a disadvantage so we're trying to mechanize where we can," said Boelts. "In some ways we can and some ways it's a real challenge."
In a Bureau of Economics Analysis, it shows that farming today represents just 0.63% of the economy after reaching nearly 3.5% of GDP in the 1970's. Arizona at only 0.59% today.
But while the GDP numbers do show a significant drop nationwide, it does not explain the situation relative to places like Yuma. In fact, framing's economic value has simply been outstripped by growth in other sectors like transportation and other things. Meaning some places that are deep in a certain trade, do not get the representation that GDP shows necessarily.
"What GDP is, it's final spending on goods and services. It's total spending to avoid double counting," said Dr. Frisvold. "What it's telling you is that we're relative to other things. We're spending less on food and agriculture than we did before. It's not so much that food and ag is shrinking, it's that we are becoming wealthier."
This showing that averages from each sector in each state gets taken into account, distorting some GDP numbers.
“We could be at a cocktail party and we are wondering what the average income in the room is and then Bill Gates walks in the room," added Dr. Frisvold. "Or it’s like houses in Tucson. One of the houses could be Paul McCartney’s house. Paul McCartney’s house and my house have slightly different selling prices, but if you average the two, you get a really misleading idea of what's going on.”
So as the world keeps getting wealthier in other sectors, agriculture gets left behind in terms of actual wealth and what you see on a scale of GDP.
“What I think people probably don’t understand is that that does not necessarily mean that more money is making its way back to the farm," said John Boelts. "You have a lot of other things in between that cost more…one of the biggest things is that we go back to the roots of our country. Efficiency, thrift, and making it less expensive to be in business.”
Despite this, downwards trends in agriculture as an employer and economic engine in the U.S. should not be taken as signs that the industry is going away. In fact, it's more productive than ever, especially in Yuma despite all of the concerning factors surrounding the business.
While other regions may struggle with these threats to agriculture, the desert southwest remains the anamoly.
“They're using water very efficiently, they're growing their crops really efficiently, and it's just like one of the most productive agricultural areas on the planet," said Dr. Frisvold. "If the agriculture in Yuma is in danger, agriculture everywhere else is in much danger.”
A relieving sign of a bright future for John Boelts and others who have dedicated their life to agriculture, with the hopes of it flourishing even past their time.
“It’s critical for our economy. It’s critical for our children and grandchildren’s future. And it should be part of something we all think about when we make political decision, make decisions on where we invest our money for public research and things like that. Everybody has to eat and we’re all counting on that and that’s why I’m in the business I’m in.”
An agricultural community working against the odds to thrive, still maintaining an empire in the fields and with the crops sent out nationwide.
A true agricultural haven at the core.
“The opportunities that we have in Yuma to farm are pretty remarkable. It’s beyond a unique place. It’s a special place. There’s really no other place like it in our country and not many other places like it around the world.”