Farm Water Management Lessons from the Desert

MARICOPA, AZ — In this patchwork quilt of irrigated green farms tucked into a vast expanse of desert, cacti and mesquite, it seems improbable that water-loving vegetables could be sustainably produced on a large scale.

Yet Arizona is second only to California as the country’s largest grower of lettuce, spinach, melon and other such crops. Year-round warm temperatures and decades of smart water planning have earned the state its place in the market.

Unlike California, however, Arizona is not currently facing a water crisis, even though it too is enduring prolonged drought. “We’ve created resiliency in our water supply, ” said Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Thomas Butschazke at a recent drought panel.

Minimal rainfall as a perennial condition has forced Arizonians to learn how to grow food on a lean water budget. The state’s landmark 1980 Groundwater Management Act and other water policies have incentivized Arizona farmers to develop some of the country’s most water-efficient farming practices, according to a recent study.

Perhaps even more important, tight water budgets have bred a water-first mindset among farmers. Robert Knorr, a fourth generation farmer who grows jalapeno peppers, melons, wheat, corn, sunflowers and potatoes on his 3,000-acre Maricopa farm, exemplifies this attitude.

“We track water like we do financial statements, down to the acre inch that’s applied, where it’s applied, how it’s applied and when it’s applied,” he said on a recent visit to his farm.

Knorr grew up outside of Minot, ND, where the farming season is short and wheat is king. Arizona’s longer growing season, crop diversity and stable water supply drew him to the state in the mid 90s.

Though he started growing wheat and cotton, he quickly moved into jalapenos. Salsa sales were exploding in the U.S., and food processors like Pace were searching for a year round supply of fresh —> Read More