Amid Severe Drought, Arizona Turns to Sustainable Farming

As temperatures continue to soar in the Southwest and fresh water supplies are dwindling, locals turn to Indigenous farming practices to build a more sustainable future.

Kendall Krosen in the Mission Garden, Tucson AZ. Taken on June 8, 2023.

In Arizona, temperatures can soar to a staggering 115ºF in the height of the summer. Many crops wither under extreme heat, and farmers are facing a dilemma surrounding an increasingly scarce ingredient: water.  

The levels of the Colorado River, Arizona’s single largest water source, have dropped nearly 20% since 2000, forcing the federal government to take drastic measures to limit the amount of water being used throughout seven states in the Southwest. Researchers find climate change accounted for 47% of the Southwest’s drought severity from 2000-2018. While farmers are cutting back on the amount of water being used for agriculture, population growth in metropolitan areas like Phoenix and Tempe is simultaneously sparking an even greater demand for agricultural production, putting the Southwest in a precarious position. 

As many farmers who have relied on the Colorado River to irrigate their water-intensive crops for decades are having to reimagine what their agricultural production will look like with a limited water supply, some are turning to innovative measures to cut back on their water use and set new standards for the future. 

The Mission Garden in Tucson, Arizona is one example of a community-led agricultural museum in the Sonoran Desert that has found a method to fight the drought. Their solution lies in working alongside the desert’s natural landscape. The farm plants traditional local heirloom crops and edible native plants that require minimal water and thrive in dry conditions. 

The Mission’s garden draws on a variety of techniques and agricultural knowledge from the Tohono O’odham Nation, an Indigenous population whose agriculture thrived in the Southwest for thousands of years before colonization. Agave and prickly pear plants bloom under the shade of native mesquite and palo verde trees, and drip irrigation systems water the plants to avoid excessive runoff. 

By planting crops that are well adapted to the soil and climate, the garden aims to “restore an ecology that reflects what was historically here,” says Kendall Kroesen, Outreach Coordinator of Mission Farm. “We are shifting to agriculture that is symbiotic with the natural landscape of the desert.” 

While the Farm relies mostly on water from the Colorado River, they also use ”sweetwater,” or wastewater that has been harvested from the Catalina River before being treated and repurposed by the city of Tucson through the Sweetwater treatment facility. The farm is also shifting towards hydroponics, a technique of growing plants using a water-based nutrient solution rather than soil, in order to conserve water and maximize arable land. 

Despite these innovative successes, Mission Garden faces limitations to the amount of agriculture they can produce in the Tucson heat. “We’re working with a limited supply of water and arable land,” says Krosen. The garden spreads over half an acre of land, and despite the farm’s use of compost and biodegradable mulch to keep the soil healthy, it remains difficult to grow many crops in such an arid climate. “Unlike many commercial farms in the Southwest, we work with the natural landscape, and not against it,” Krosen says, which severely limits the variety of crops that can be grown.

Two hours north of Tucson, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a charity organization in Phoenix, Arizona, has also integrated sustainable farming into their mission. The organization works to feed thousands of homeless and food-insecure people across Maricopa county. With the help of hundreds of local volunteers across three urban farms, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul harvests over 30,200 pounds of fresh produce every year. 

These urban farms in Phoenix use permaculture, or the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems, and chemical-free methods to grow crops that are less straining on the natural environment. In 2018, the Urban Farming Program’s compost initiative diverted more than 150,000 pounds of food waste from entering landfills and has been transforming these food scraps into a nutrient-rich growing medium. Members also grow native plants such as beans, squash, melons, and heirloom tomatoes that thrive in the desert heat, and can be easily made into nutritionally rich meals. 

Greg Peterson, founder of the Urban Farm, says part of the Urban Farm’s goal is “getting people excited about growing food and planting fruit trees in their yard and helping them understand that they can be farmers [whether] they’re farming in their front yard, backyard, or in the community,” according to the The Phoenix New Times.

In The Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s guidebook, there are four simple steps to growing a sustainable urban garden: first, after reflecting on the purpose of organizing and drawing on the strengths of the resources available in the natural environment, community members should band together, to collaborate and envision a shared goal. “This helps individuals better understand how one’s program can build upon assets and strengths in order to help community members achieve their goals” the guidebook says. Once a goal has been established, community members can plan and understand the logistics of building an urban farming program through creating a budget and determining a garden site. 

“Our community saw a collective problem and came together to find a solution,” says Krosen. A primary goal of these urban farm communities is to envision the future where growing fresh produce is not such an ecologically straining and water-demanding activity in the Southwest. “We are shifting our local agriculture from water-intensive crops to drought-tolerant ones… in order to taste history and reconnect with our roots.”

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