By: John Gifford, ASU Food Systems graduate student
Graduate students in Arizona State University’s MS in Sustainable Food Systems program were introduced to Sharma Torrens during a December 2021 farm and ranch immersion experience in Prescott, Arizona. Sharma owns her own business, Ag-Conserve Consulting LLC, and is a contractor for two nonprofit organizations. She is the Conservation Education Director with the Arizona Association of Conservation Districts, and the Conservation Specialist with the Central Arizona Land Trust. A longtime advocate for wildlife and wild lands, she says that at the outset of her career she viewed agriculture as detrimental to our planet and its species. For this reason, she was opposed to it.
“I was very anti-agriculture at this point because I didn’t understand,” Sharma explained. “I thought it destroyed the environment and harmed species.”
Following law school, the former wildlife biologist took a job with the Arizona Land and Water Trust. The focus here was on establishing conservation easements, which are those wonderful arrangements that protect land from being developed or subdivided. As a result, wildlife habitat, soil, and water are also protected. Conservation easements provide landowners with valuable tax incentives to protect their land while the other property rights remain intact, including the right to sell the land. Such arrangements benefit landowners, as well as our environment, wildlife, and society in general by saving land from the specter of development.
Sharma said that her job with the Arizona Land and Water Trust required her to get to know the state’s farmers and ranchers, as they are the ones who own many of the large tracts of land the agency works to protect. She grew to realize that a number of these same agriculturalists worked with Arizona’s Natural Resource Conservation Districts (NRCDs). This helped change her opinion of agriculture.
Some 32 of Arizona’s 42 Natural Resource Conservation Districts are political subdivisions of the state, while 10 are tribal-affiliated. Along with farmers, ranchers, and private landowners, the NRCDs work with federal, state, and other agencies to accomplish their conservation objectives of protecting wildlife habitat, migratory corridors, water, and the soil itself.
The NRCDs also have an education component through which they teach the public that conserving agricultural lands also benefits wildlife and natural habitat. That’s because both thrive with clean water, healthy soils, and diverse, vibrant biotic communities.
What makes Arizona’s Natural Resource Conservation Districts unique, Sharma said, is that they have the ability to facilitate collaborations between disparate groups. “There are farmers, ranchers, and other private landowners,” she explained. “They’re focusing on farms and ranches, but also wildlife habitat and migratory corridors. And you don’t generally see these two sides working together [agriculture and conservation]. These folks have the ability to bring them all together because of their broad scope. They’re also the local experts and local hubs of conservation.”
Sharma believes that if more of the public knew about NRCDs, it would change their perspective on agriculture. That’s because the Natural Resource Conservation Districts include farmers and ranchers who freely give their time to help conserve not only agriculture, but also wildlife habitat. When one begins to understand that sustainably managed agricultural lands can also provide healthy ecosystems for wildlife, it begins to change one’s view of agriculture. It did that for Sharma Torrens.
Of her dual role as Conservation Education Director with the Arizona Association of Conservation Districts, and conservation consultant with the Central Arizona Land Trust, Sharma said it is both demanding but also rewarding.
“I am incredibly busy and I work all the time,” she said. “But I absolutely love it. With both of my jobs I’m conserving agriculture and natural resources in different ways.”
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.