An eye-opening journey through the vibrant desert

By Jillian Dy, ASU Food Systems graduate student. 

Five Days. Eighteen students hailing from thirteen states. Fifteen sites throughout central Arizona. 

The ASU Farm Immersive was a journey through the desert to meet some of the innovative and hardworking people who are growing and processing our food, conserving our natural resources, and managing land in Arizona. Our visits included a fourth generation 1,100 cow dairy, a multi-region Certified Organic vegetable operation, a Native farm growing olives, citrus, and alfalfa, an urban community farm incubator, a 72,000 acre ranch managing a mix of private and public land, and a thriving elementary school garden. 

We saw how olive oil is processed (both the fruit and the seed are ground together and pressed), learned about the resurgence of heritage wheat (stone ground ancient varieties retain flavor and nutrition that most flour loses through industrial processing), and how climate change is impacting food production. One farmer sold their land in southern California which became unproductive due to increasing temperatures. Another let go of nearly half their alfalfa acreage due to water restrictions in Arizona. 

We learned how land management is critical (often unpaid) work that farmers do to protect our natural resources while also producing food we depend upon. Our week culminated with a visit from the Director of Arizona’s Department of Agriculture who put it best: agriculture is the most important industry in America. Our freedom is directly tied to our ability to feed ourselves.

Here are some top learnings from our week, as recounted by the ASU Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership student cohort:

Connecting the farmer with their community is a challenge. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to resolving this disconnect. Every operation we saw was unique with its own opportunities, challenges, and business plans. However, across the board there was a tremendous need for communication with the broader public about what farmers are doing and why it’s important. As student Kate Seybold said “you can build it and grow good food, but you still need people to want it and care about what you are doing.” What will it take to better connect farmers with a community of consumers and markets? For sustainable agriculture advancements to be successful, we need to open a vibrant dialogue with the public.

We had questions about scale. 

Size matters, and we heard firsthand accounts of how technology has enabled efficiency over time. For example, there were about 20,000 flour mills in the 1800’s, whereas today there are approximately 80. In the 1940s, there were 26 million dairy cows in the United States and today there are about 9 million. Without a doubt, efficiency and technological advancements in breeding and processing has helped us continue to feed our growing population. At the same time, small and mid-scale farms have a lot to balance: sustainability, finances, labor, product development. We met so many farmers who are innovating and adapting as they go to make it work. Jason Pena, a student who’s been working for a multinational food company, observed that overall the farmers we met experienced more challenges, meanwhile “big farmers just turn a crop.” We wondered: Where are the policies that support and subsidize smaller farms? Where and how can they actually compete? 

Native people have been farming for a very long time.

In one story we heard, a Native farmer could count back 128 generations of agriculture in his family. For those of us who do not regularly interact with Native people - or even acknowledge the Native land upon which we all stand - it is easy to forget the deep history and expertise held within Indigenous communities. Even today, they remain some of our most innovative food producers and stewards of our natural resources, protecting 80% of our global biodiversity.

Sustainability is about more than the natural environment. 

It’s also about the wellbeing and livelihood of people who work the land, their ability to serve diverse markets and turn a profit. “There’s no other industry I can think of where people do all parts from beginning to end. That’s a lot of work that needs a support system. You wouldn’t have the car salesman building the car and financing it and teaching you to drive” says student Michael Ryan. Many farmers spoke about the dwindling farmer population, with their children unwilling to take up the business, and in general the difficulty of finding labor for such hard work. In addition, there were outside pressures impacting these producers, such as impending development pressures which caused one farm to lose 40% of their land to warehousing in the fourth fastest growing county in the country. What kinds of policies will provide wraparound supports for the diverse challenges these farms must address?

Some inspiration for our work moving forward.

Each student enrolled in ASU’s Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership program is currently engaged in the food system as entrepreneurs or through farmers markets, school food, agricultural research and policy, dietetics, the military, and supply chain management. Our biggest takeaway succinctly put by student Deb Sadler: “To be effective policymakers, we have to hear these farmers’ experiences.” This program has enabled us to gain a broader perspective outside our day jobs and our respective regions across the country. Moving forward, we are inspired to help young people connect with the food system, support Tribes in continuing to gain food sovereignty, and become a bridge between the policymakers and the people working the land and producing our food.

This blog is part of a series from the December 2021 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.