Sustainable citrus farming in Yuma Valley with Mark Kuechel

By Wesley Conner, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student 

This blog is part of a series from the December Arizona Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students virtually toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff and non-profit leaders. 

For this year’s Food and Farm Immersion, instead of long days getting to know my fellow cohorts through exploring the landscape of Arizona’s agriculture, speaking to farmers and ranchers about rotational grazing and planting, or doing USDA inspections on food distribution sites, we connected over Zoom from our respective homes to speak with Arizona’s leading figures in agriculture. Our fearless leaders, Dr. Merrigan and Suzanne Palmieri, crafted a brand new immersive experience via the internet where we got to speak to a host of farmers, USDA employees, and conservationists about their work. 

If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that being adaptable and using our resources wisely will get us through anything. For Mark Kuechel, a fourth-generation citrus farmer of lemons, limes, and tangelos in the Yuma Valley, this lifestyle is nothing new. As one of the top producers for citrus in the United States, he’s pioneered a system that has not only supplied markets in Canada, Europe, and Japan, but has been active in the conservation of land and resources for the Yuma Valley.

To kick off our Food and Farm Immersive, Mark spoke with us about his citrus farm in Arizona and what it’s like to be a farmer in one of the most arid climates in the United States. Mark could talk all day about conservation work, and would prefer to be considered a conservationist rather than a citrus farmer. With so many limited resources, water conservation and disease pressure are constantly on his mind as his 600 acres only receives approximately 3 inches of rain each year. Over the years, competing with pressure from suburban development and neighboring tribes, Mark has had to develop smarter ways to irrigate his citrus trees through canals and flooding. This has led to an astounding 93% efficiency rate with the farm’s water usage.

It’s no surprise that Mark Kuechel has found himself as the Chairman of the Yuma Natural Resource Conservation District and the Yuma Conservation Garden. He works with neighboring farmers and ranchers in the Yuma Valley to help them improve the quality and yield of their product while conserving their natural resources. He also educates children about conservation practices so that the next generation of farmers will understand how to utilize agricultural practices to preserve the land.

Before speaking to Mark, I had never considered the colorful piles of lemons, limes and grapefruits I walked past in the grocery store as a product that could be farmed in an environmentally conscious manner. I also never thought about all the decisions a citrus producer has to make in order to reach my little grocery store out here in Tennessee-- from the brown-rot resistant varieties of oranges to how rainfall could affect the market prices. Even as I hold this little Tangelo (pictured in this photo), I’ll always think of the farmers like Mark Kuechel who see the future of farming as an act of conservation even in the toughest environments, and farmers who work tirelessly to grow products that can be enjoyed all over the world.