Farmer-driven conservation in the heart of Yuma, Arizona

By: Elizabeth Reilly, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.

It’s said that there are “five C’s” that power Arizona: climate, copper, cotton, cattle, and citrus. Mark Kuechel, owner and operator of Kuechel Farms, comes from a long line – four generations, in fact – of experts in one of these C’s: citrus. But, after spending the afternoon with Mr. Kuechel, it’s clear another C could be added to the list: conservation.

A calling towards citrus and conservation

By day, Mr. Kuechel is a farmer. By evening, weekends and every spare moment in between, Mr. Kuechel is a community leader. When he’s not in his citrus groves, he’s leading various Conservation District meetings or tending to the Yuma Conservation Garden. While farming alone is more than a full-time job 365 days a year, Mr. Kuechel is an ardent advocate for the Garden. He serves as a board member, a tour guide, an educator, and a gardener.

Mr. Kuechel’s family has a long legacy in farming. His great grandfather immigrated from Germany to California in the 1800s, where he planted his family’s roots and 10 acres of dates. In time, the family converted its land to Valencia orange production. This grew to be incredibly successful and inspire so many neighboring farmers to plant citrus groves that the family’s hometown was renamed Orange, California. However, the citrus boom burst in time. Water shortages and suburban sprawl shuttered farms across the region. The Kuechel family’s farm was the last one standing. Ultimately, they decided to relocate to Yuma, Arizona, where they’ve been farming ever since.

Now a twenty-acre operation in the “sunniest city in the world,” Kuechel Farms provides companies and countries around the world with fresh citrus. In addition, Mr. Kuechel has experience growing myriad produce – potatoes, peaches, radishes, onions, barley, wheat, and 53 varieties of celery. Spend any time with Mr. Kuechel and you’ll quickly see that his encyclopedic knowledge of farming is matched by his passion for land conservation.

This passion carries beyond his own farmland and onto the Yuma Conservation Garden. The Garden was founded in 1950 by farmers who recognized the importance of preserving the unique landscape of the Sonoran Desert. The original farming footprint is evident throughout the Garden. Step through the front gates and you’ll be greeted by large doors beautifully crafted out of donated farm equipment. Walk deeper into the Garden and you’ll take a step back in time thanks to the antique farm machinery on display.

Yuma Conservation Garden is an oasis for native species and a classroom for the community

In addition to agriculture’s tools of the trade, the Garden’s 28 acres feature winding pathways, towering saguaros, flowering fairy dusters, a lumbering turtle, and skittering wildlife. Its pond and shady trees provide a peaceful oasis for both visitors and resident ducks and geese. Throughout the Garden, learning opportunities abound. Signage describes the value of riparian habitats, a sandy “tracking pad” helps guests spot wildlife visitors, and the natural ebb and flow of plant varieties, like a fallen saguaro, teaches the lifecycle of the desert.

The learning doesn’t stop when the Garden tour ends, however. Volunteers wrote 52 Garden-inspired lesson plans, available for free online. Given the Garden’s commitment to education, it’s not a surprise that every school in Yuma has paid a visit to it. Mr. Kuechel personally leads these tours and our Sustainable Food Systems master’s cohort was fortunate enough to experience one.

Conservation is the gift that keeps on giving

Conservation gardens like Yuma’s play a vital role in preserving biodiversity, and in educating and engaging the community – especially its youngest members. As he shared with me during our cohort’s tour of his farm and the Garden, “Conservation is not only preservation. It means thinking ahead to future conservation needs.” More than anyone, farmers recognize the importance of preserving ecosystems. Human and planetary health depend on it, as do farmers’ livelihoods. Mr. Kuechel’s career has been defined by a tireless commitment to conservation. The Garden and all guests who visit it are the better for it.

This blog is part of a series from the December 2022 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.