Justice Brothers Ranch: Local food systems, co-ops and sustainable farming

By Yaquana Williams, ASU sustainable food systems graduate student

Walking onto the Justice Brothers Ranch, I could feel the Arizona sun beaming down on me, paired with the ongoing noise of airplanes flying over the Waddell area. It had been a long day of farm visits for my Sustainable Food Systems cohort. We had visited all larger, conventional farms earlier in the day, and we were looking forward to learning about what this farmer had to say about his citrus farm.

The consistent background noise of the planes did not prevent the farmer, named Selwyn Justice, from relaying his powerful messages to us about the importance of cooperative land stewardship methods, honoring local food systems, and organic farming as a lifestyle. The Justice family purchased the land in 1928 after migrating to Arizona from Missouri; now, in their 95th year of farming and ranching in Arizona. Over the years, the family has grown lettuce, wheat, melons, cotton, and alfalfa to generate revenue, ultimately finding cattle and citrus to be the most sustainable for them at present.

“We were not the first people to plant citrus here, but now we are kind of the last man standing here in the Salt River Valley. We are the longest continuing operating citrus orchard in the state of Arizona," explained Justice. Due to this, he now sits on the Arizona Citrus Resource Council, combining his love for growing citrus with farm policy. “Here in the West, farming is about 70% politics and 30% agronomy,” Justice went on to explain. He described how his family has always been deeply committed to land advocacy and farming, with his dad helping to write the 1980 Groundwater Law. What was even more fascinating than his passion for growing citrus and developing policy was his commitment to making land accessible to all farmers, especially those who have difficulty finding arable land to farm on. The Justice Brothers Ranch has been working with small farm co-ops.

When asked how he got into cooperative farming as a practice, he provided us with a rich background on his maternal lineage and the long history women in his family had with advocating for worker’s rights. He shared his understanding of labor rights and also explained the aspects of farming that intersect with racial and economic justice. He started their first beginning growers program at his farm 15 minutes from Justice Brothers Ranch, called the “Growers Opportunity Cooperative” or “Grow-Op”. For him, programs like “Grow-Op” provide opportunities for the farmers to grow in their farming businesses independently, as opposed to being a small group of farmers engaging in cooperative farming. However, the farmer insisted on cooperative farming being a priority for the future. When it comes to sharing his land, the farmer is open and eager. Justice explained how he partners with another Arizona family farm to sell pumpkins during the fall and Christmas trees during the holiday season. “Supporting other farmers is my main focus,” he shares. I took a short glimpse around the farm, and I could smell the Christmas spirit in the air, the piney scents from the Christmas trees filling the air.

Agricultural Conservation Easement Programs (ACEP) are also extremely important to him; ACEPs “protect the agricultural viability and related conservation values of eligible land by limiting nonagricultural uses which negatively affect agricultural uses” (NRSC.GOV). He shared that Arizona had the lowest participation rate in ACEPs in the country and explained how development can be a threat to farmers. He has a 40-acre field here at Justice Brothers Ranch that he is leasing to a friend who lost his land due to development. For the future of the Justice Brothers Ranch, Justice plans to open up the farm to cooperative ownership. His views on land ownership and access inform his work with the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program; “Land access is the largest hurdle that beginning farmers have to cross," said the farmer. For him, making land more accessible to farmers is critical in the movement towards sustainable farming.

When doing a quick search on Google about the farm, people may not see the “Certified Organic” label on their site. However, as he explains, his family was farming organically from its Origins, and the Justice Brothers Ranch is 100% certified organic, formally becoming certified in the early 1990s. Referring to this period, Justice explains how “...back then, there wasn't a lot of certified organic production in the country, it was a radically different market...” When I asked about the importance of being certified organic, he replied, “For us, the certification of organic has more to do with being recognized for the work we've already done with our trees over the years. We always supported integrated pest management strategies over chemical applications. We always supported managing the ground differently.”

For this farmer, it is only possible to build sustainable agricultural systems in Arizona by prioritizing local food systems. Local food systems must be a part of sustainable agriculture, accompanied by efforts to re-examine what constitutes “local” depending on the region. The farmer calls attention to how the region “local” refers to is much larger than we may think in the context of the West, sometimes expanding to an approximately 250 to 500-mile radius. To get food to people efficiently between larger local distances, he explains that with distance comes the need to consider additional logistics, a question like “How can we incorporate the Navajo Nation, the Tohono O'odham nation as part of our collective food systems?" is crucial to decision-making processes. To Justice, preserving agriculture is very possible with the involvement of local food systems.

This blog is part of a series from the Swette Center's annual Arizona Food and Farm Immersion, a required course in their two graduate programs. Students tour the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.