Collaborating to save agriculture in Arizona

By: Copeland Vidal, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student. 

The 2022 Sustainable Food Systems graduate cohort includes individuals from different states, professional backgrounds, and experiences. The program's administrators brought us to Arizona for a week to observe agricultural operations and meet with stakeholders. During our Immersive, the cohort met several industry stakeholders, including the Director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture (AZDA), Mark Killian, who had an engaging discussion with us early in the morning. He wowed the students with his extensive knowledge of Arizona's agriculture, geography, industries, climate, and challenges faced by farmers. In addition, Director Killian shared his optimism for the future through his experience as a farmer and the state's leading voice on agriculture.  

 Arizona’s Agriculture Potential 

Director Killian stated that Arizona’s climate and unique soil allows farmers to grow and produce quality crops and animals for local consumption and exports. He listed several high-quality crops, such as citrus, corn, cotton, wheat, and alfalfa. Killian mentioned that Arizona’s alfalfa is highly demanded by countries such as China, India, and Saudi Arabia, fueling debate around virtual water. According to Hoekstra (2011), virtual water is the indirect use of water to produce tradable goods and commodities. As well, the Director sees tremendous economic prospects for south-eastern Arizona to scale production of pistachios as the zone has a similar climate to Iran’s, the world’s renowned number 1 producer of flavorful pistachios.  

 Advice to students  

The Director stated that agriculture is a key industry of critical importance to society. He suggested that agriculture should be treated as a national security issue on the federal level. His position stems from a strong belief in the philosophy that the fundamental freedom of any country is the ability to feed itself. “Everyone eats, we eat at least three times daily,” Killian stated as he reinforced our dependence on agriculture for sustenance. He implored the cohort to use their training and experience to advance food production and distribution while reducing food waste. In addition, he encouraged my peers and I to do all we can to bring our urban friends on board through their own experience of the creation of life. For example, the experience of planting a seed and watching the plant grow and develop. According to Director Killian, this will bring a magical moment to non-agriculture-minded friends. 

Advice to the farmers 

Director Killian highly praises the farmers of Arizona for continuously producing goods fit for market. According to Killian, these farmers face numerous challenges, including water quality and availability, in addition to the constant battle to narrow the disparity between rapidly rising input cost and slow-moving produce price. Despite the challenges, he advises farmers to embrace technology and innovations. Farmers should look at new technological opportunities and ways to diversify revenue to supplement the traditional income stream—for example, agriculture tourism and value-added products. In addition, adopting different agricultural modalities, such as vertical farming, will allow for greater resilience and response to unpredictable occurrences such as water shortages, pest and disease outbreaks, and increased urbanization. He believes vertical farming will play a role in future technology as land becomes less available due to increasing urbanization. 

Contribution from Higher Education 

Director Killian thinks there is a large learning curve when understanding the relationship between agriculture, the environment, and humans. He strongly believes agriculture must continuously evolve through innovations and science to bridge this gap. He urges stakeholders to increase collaboration with the state academic institutions for effective solutions for community resilience. The long-standing public servant stated that the state agriculture department’s collaboration with Arizona State University had brought many practical solutions for farmers. He encouraged students to become advocates for the universities as they play a crucial role in the sustainable future of food and agriculture. 

Decision Making 

When asked about his decision-making process, Director Killian stated that decisions are based on science and logic. He also mentioned that politics do not play a role in his decision on agriculture policies. The department, he said, takes a practical and bipartisan approach to policies aimed at promoting and protecting agriculture. In addition, the department's mission is supported by a focus on training and continuous learning, as agriculture is always evolving.  

It was a pleasure to have met with Director Killian to learn about Arizona’s agriculture potential and the opportunities for us to collaborate and bring awareness to others.   


Hoekstra. (2011). The Water Footprint Assessment Manual : Setting the Global Standard. Earthscan.  

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.