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Amid cutbacks, heat and drought, Arizona farmers get help from University of Arizona

With three-quarters of Arizona’s fresh water supply going to farmlands, the recent reductions imposed on Colorado River supply are having a huge impact on agriculture in the state.

“It’s all about stretching that water dollar or that gallon of water a little bit further.”

Paul “Paco” Ollerton is a third-generation farmer in Casa Grande, who says he’d already been squeezing every last drop for his fields.

“Our yields have improved dramatically. Irrigation efficiencies have helped quite a bit.”

But it’s still not enough to keep his family business afloat. The longtime cotton farmer has had to make adjustments as well, turning to more drought-resistant crops used for animal feed.

“So what we’re doin’ is, we’re planting triticale in November, taking it off in May, and we’ll follow that with teff grass, which is actually a desert, low water use, low input,” Ollerton said.

“Both these crops don’t use much fertilizer either. And we’re doing both those crops for less water than what we would grow a cotton crop on in the same fields.”

Ollerton and other farmers are getting help from the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension.

Advanced technology, soil health help yields

“We are producing more with less," said Ayman Mostafa, who heads the Maricopa County office in Phoenix. "We are, you know, cut in terms of land and water, but we are producing even more in terms of the crop and the yield.”

Mostafa’s agents are helping farmers use advanced technologies, including robotics for pinpoint irrigation.

“We are using every drop of the water to deliver to the root of the plant in a very precise way, so we can use less of the water and enhance irrigation efficiency.”

The Extension program is also getting its hands in the dirt. Debankur Sanyal is the UA’s "Dr. Soil."

“I am a soil health specialist. So, my job is to make sure, like a doctor, (to make sure) the soil is healthy and well. And if not, what we need to do.”

And Sanyal says Arizona’s mineral rich dirt, along with bountiful sun and year-round harvests, still make it the ideal place to grow even as water supplies diminish and temperatures heat up.

“Very, very productive soils here in Arizona. Though it doesn’t look like it, but with water, it can produce the best crop in the world. And that’s why with many of the crops we grow, we have the highest productivities all over the world,” Sanyal said.

“Some other places, like in the Midwest, have very fertile soils, too, but they don’t have the sunlight that we do. So, we have the perfect combination of natural factors.”

Reducing farming isn't the answer, Extension agent says

Sanyal is working on making those special soils even more potent with the right diet.

“So, we were thinking, can we boost our soil’s health by adding some microbial amendments, like when you take probiotics for your gut health.”

Longtime farmer Ollerton compares many of the suggestions he’s heard over the years to “snake oil” — but this, he say, seems different.

“We like to think we can trust these guys, compared to someone that’s just out there trying to sell us a product that’s got a small fortune of several hundred million dollars in development and EPA registrations.”

With decreasing water supplies and the majority of the state’s allotment going to farmers, some feel farm fields should be cut back or replaced with solar panels, something that is already being seen in parts of Arizona.

The experts at the UA believe that would be a mistake.

“We will get more energy, but what to do with that? If you cannot make your food, what do you do with that energy?” said Sanyal.

Mostafa says nearby food production is more essential than ever.

“If we learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, just a year or so ago, is that we need to produce our food as close as possible, we need to shorten the supply chain, and we need to do this in an efficient way.”

Research continues into doing more with less and getting as much crop per drop to save the state’s ag business, which according to Arizona’s Department of Agriculture, is worth over $23 billion and still employs more than 100,000 people.

“If we learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, just a year or so ago, is that we need to produce our food as close as possible, we need to shorten the supply chain, and we need to do this in an efficient way.” — Ayman Mostafa, University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Sanyal’s name. 

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Phil Latzman is an award-winning digital journalist and broadcast professional with over 25 years of experience covering news and sports on a multitude of platforms.