Valley farmland is disappearing — is that bad?


Pulling up to Tolmachoff Farms’ 75th Avenue stand, it’s apparent that it’s man versus nature.

Also, it’s obvious nature isn’t winning.
As more housing and commercial buildings eat up privately owned land around the Valley, farmland is disappearing.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says nationally, the amount of farmland in low-density rural areas is 23 times more likely to be urbanized than other agricultural land.

However, even though many longtime Valley residents might think of Maricopa and Pima counties as somewhat urbanized, development is putting an even bigger crunch on food growing than ever before.

Nowhere is that more obvious than at Tolmachoff Farms. The once-rural-looking multi-generation family farm’s market used to sit in a part of the Valley known for fields and two-lane roads.

Today, urban traffic zips up and down 75th Avenue in front of the stand, headed for the next stoplight or one of the many nearby packed-in homes or businesses that have exploded across the Valley.

“I don’t get the feeling cities and counties want any farm acreage at all,” said Bill Tolmachoff, who owns the family’s four-generation farm along with his wife, Gracie. “I’ve read media reports about preparing for an impending food shortage. I think some leaders forget that people still eat three times a day.”

The University of Arizona’s Co-Op Extension says, in a 2018 report, Maricopa County had only 741 of Arizona’s 40,822 square miles that are used for crops or grazing. In terms of 2018 agriculture, forestry and hunting GDP on farms, the county only accounted for $89.4 million of the state’s $2.3 billion total.

Independent Newsmedia reached out to Ayman Mostafa of the Co-Op Extension, the Maricopa County Real Estate Office, the Arizona Farm Bureau and the American Farm Bureau Federation, but did not get any responses.

The Arizona Commerce Authority said in 2018 there were 138,000 Arizonans working in agriculture in the state, helping move along a $23.3 billion portion of the state’s economy. And Arizona is part of a global food network as the state leads the U.S. in lettuce and leafy greens production during the winter months.

“The world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050,” the commerce authority says. “To feed this growing population, the world will need to increase food production by up to 70 percent from today’s levels.”

According to the USDA, its 2017 Census of Agriculture showed there were 1,874 farms in Maricopa County — a drop of 24 from the 2012 census.

Those farms took up 474,438 acres, with the average farm size of farm increasing by 32 acres to 253 acres by 2017.

Mark Stapp, director of the master of real estate development program at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business, said while agriculture was a main driver of the Valley’s economy for years, it might not be a bad thing if farmers and others are using Maricopa and Pima county land for what is needed most.

“Capital goes where there’s a need,” Stapp said. “We are not the bread basket of Arizona, here in this Valley. Farmers here still produce many things, but not a lot of produce or direct-to-consumer food. That’s Yuma and other parts of the state. So farmland becoming buildings doesn’t affect the food supply directly. Farmers are motivated to get the most value out of their land, which isn’t always with something that uses 80% more water than housing uses.”

Tolmachoff said there are other factors involved in the shrinking of farms, such as corporate greed.

Not only has massive real estate flipping become its own industry, but other industries that support farming are focused only on margins, investors and shareholders.

“In addition to all the supply chain issues, there are some essential things manufacturers and distributors have simply decided to not sell,” Tolmachoff said, adding there are types of seeds he hasn’t been able to order.

One thing that seems to be in ample supply is water — depending on who is profiting from economic activity that uses that water, Tolmachoff said. Planning and zoning commissions and city and county governing bodies are forbidden from bringing estimates of available water supplies in discussions about development approvals.

“There seems to be enough water for houses, so those can’t be rejected,” he said.

Tolmachoff Farms, which operates these days on a tiny sliver of land in a fast-moving urban West Valley neighborhood, is part of the shrinking farmland in Maricopa and Pima counties. A 2017 survey by the USDA showed only a net loss of 24 farms for Maricopa County from 2012 to 2017, but recent planning and zoning approvals and construction are clearly cutting into the Valley’s small agricultural land inventory.
Tolmachoff Farms, which operates these days on a tiny sliver of land in a fast-moving urban West Valley neighborhood, is part of the shrinking …

Tolmachoff said he’d like to see elected officials more vociferously defend zones like the agricultural areas near Luke Air Force Base, knowing those aren’t ideal for housing. He also likes ideas like the city of Phoenix’s Farmland Preservation Program that sets aside usable pockets of land.

Stapp said he believes the Valley’s farmland will continue to disappear — maybe at a faster rate than it has during the past five years. He agrees there would be a far more intense panic from thousands of homeowners about a complete water outage than would exist if five farmers suddenly lost water for Valley crops.

“A lot of expansion is still taking up the farmland at the edges of the Valley, but a lot is infill, too,” Stapp said. “And there is a lot that goes into each decision. Not only are there policy choices, but also, when anyone brings up greed, which businesspeople are not profit-seeking?”

Stapp said getting Arizona to shift its longstanding policies that favored the largest farm corporations and richest businesspeople and landowners is a needed step. So is making affordable housing a top government priority, so there isn’t a need to try to focus on solving housing, water, food insecurity and other problems all at once.

“There’s a balance,” Stapp said. “You don’t want to make five or more new problems in other areas by trying to solve one problem.”

Allowing higher density and taller buildings in the Valley’s most densely populated areas is one policy change Stapp said he believes would lighten the impact of a housing crunch and might help with land use problems and shortages.

However, all solutions are comprehensive, he said, and there isn’t a magic-button cure that will fix both food and housing.

Another example is to fix tax policy, he said.

There must be motivation to avoid going too far in terms of government restrictions or permissions, Stapp said, as allowing all types of land use is as harmful as allowing none or only a few.

The educator said the dying of farming in the Valley should be motivation for Arizona to improve infrastructure to support all industries, instead of running on a “bare minimum” basis.

“There are two ways to govern — you can differentiate, or you can go with the lowest cost,” Stapp said. “The current governor has really raised the state’s longtime standard of doing things at the lowest cost, but it’s a (expletive) way to run a government.”


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