Ranching and agriculture in Arizona, The Arizona Experience

This month, as part of the celebration of Arizona’s centennial, the Arizona Experience website showcases ranching and agriculture, industries that added $10.3 billion to the Arizona economy in 2010.

The Farming and Ranching page provides an overview of the State’s agriculture. This page deals briefly with the water issue and notes that “Crops are thirsty. Agriculture consumes approximately 70% of the state’s water.” The page also notes something that I was unaware of: “dairy is Arizona’s leading agricultural product,” it outsells cotton.

“Yuma is the winter lettuce capital of the world, supplying an estimated 95% of the nation’s head lettuce, leaf lettuce, and romaine lettuce along with a cornucopia of seasonal veggies. In fact, Arizona ranks second in the U.S. in head lettuce, leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli production. Apple growers over the last 5 or 6 years average close to 20 million pounds per year. After rapid growth in the in 1980s, Arizona’s annual pecan harvest is worth $52 million. Total revenues from the agriculture industry are second only to mining.”

Cattle ranching came to Arizona over 300 years ago. Spanish conquistadors grazed cattle in the Huachuca Mountains and the Santa Cruz River valley as early as 1690. Discovery of gold and copper brought people and railroads to Arizona and that resulted in a cattle boom. By the 1890s, about 1.5 million head of cattle roamed Arizona. But that boom soon faded due to overgrazing. Since then, however, cattle growers have learned to be good stewards of the land, because their livelihoods depend on it. Currently, about 870,000 head of cattle are raised on 3,800 Arizona ranches. In 2010, Arizona ranchers produced enough beef to feed 4.6 million Americans. That year, the state’s 391.2 million pounds of beef made a total economic impact of $3.2 billion.

Today, “Many ranchers practice Coordinated Resource Management (CRM), a conservation practice that adjusts grazing and cattle movement to optimize renewal of grasslands, soil, and wildlife habitat. Many cattle graze on U.S. rangelands, about 85 percent of which are unsuitable for crops. Most ranchers work to prevent overgrazing of these areas, as over-grazed land no longer offers food. Ranchers may plant trees for windbreaks, improve plant density and work to decrease invasive plant species, manage overgrowth to prevent fire, or plant cover crops to decrease erosion.”

The cotton page, Cotton Today, notes that “About 900 cotton farms produce an average total of 600,000 bales (but yields vary every year) and supplied approximately $362 million in cash to the state economy in 2011. That’s enough cotton for at least one pair of jeans for every person in the United States.” “Arizona is the birth place for Pima Cotton, a long-fiber variety (known as long staple cotton) named for the Pima Indians who helped cultivate it.” That page also addresses water use and use of insecticides. “Cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops, but too much pesticide can pollute fields and water sources. The industry is always on its toes in an attempt to stay one step ahead of pests like the boll weevil and the pink worm. One breakthrough came when some cotton seeds were genetically modified to include Bt, a natural insecticide. This cotton actually kills boll weevils trying to feed on it, so farmers spray less.” Another weapon is in a warehouse near Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix which grows about 22 million pink bollworm moths per day. “But there is something special about these moths. A few minutes in a radiation chamber has taken away their ability to reproduce. Of course, the moths don’t know that. When they are released on area cotton farms, they mate with naturally born adults. However, no babies are produced by these moths. The next generation of moths remains at a manageable size, ensuring the next generation of cotton.”

Another resource on the main Arizona Experience page is the Teachers Center. “Teachers can open a lesson plan for 4-12 grade students about local commodities approved by the Arizona Department of Education. Handy guides to seasonal produce and an interactive farmers’ market locator are resources for the classroom.” The Teachers Center also leads to a lesson plan contest where teachers are invited to build and share lesson plans. There are $25,000 in prizes.


The Arizona Experience is sponsored in part by the Arizona Geological Survey.


  1. I like to point out the 300 years of ranching whenever I hear someone talk about protecting the “pristine” desert. There’s no such thing anymore. What we see now is not anything close to what the desert looked like before Europeans and their ravenous bovines arrived. My brother used to work for Game and Fish and the biologists there would to refer to the environment as BC and AD. BC = Before Cattle, AD = After Destruction.

    1. But building the roads you drive on, and the home you live in, and stripping the range for farming the vegetarian diet you eat and mining the copper and drilling the oil for the computer you are sitting behind didn’t destroy anything, did it?

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