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Yuma farmers educate Arizona gubernatorial candidate Hobbs on harsh realities of drought

Katie Hobbs Yuma ag.png
Lisa Sturgis/KAWC
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Arizona Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs meets with Yuma County ag leaders including Vic Smith, chief executive officer of JV Smith Companies, in Yuma on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022.

Arizona Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs met with local farmers late Friday afternoon to learn more about how the historic drought is affecting Yuma’s agriculture industry.

Hobbs found out the situation is extremely concerning, and it only promises to get worse.

Drought promises to impact life in every corner of Arizona, but the lack of water has larger implications for Yuma County.

“If you think Yuma is the poor boy of Arizona right now, because really all the money that supports this economy, or I’d say 70 or 80 percent of it, is coming from the agriculture around here, and there’s gonna be a lot of people on welfare around here if we don’t keep them working,” said Jon Jessen, founder and chairman of the Gowan Company.

Jessen was just one of the local ag leaders invited to the table by Vic Smith of JV Smith Companies for the meeting with Hobbs.

It was a gathering of Democrats, but the issues transcend party.

The concerns expressed by Gowan and JV Smith are shared by Yuma’s entire ag community, regardless of political affiliation.

One major worry right now: how much water will be available for planting during the upcoming season.

Steve Alameda from Top Flavor Farms said, it keeps him up at night.

“I’m just in a funk this year already," Alameda said. "Normally you get focused, you’re ready to go, but with this in the back of your mind, you’re trying to plan but you really can’t make any plans yet, so it’s always something, I guess you’d say.”

Farmers don’t know just how much they’ll have to cut back, but they expect it to be drastic.

“There’s gonna be a cut in the river, there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind," said Matt McGuire, Chief Ag Officer for JV Smith. "It’s gonna go to tier two or possibly tier 3 shortage, and that’s gonna have some impacts...a lot of impacts in Phoenix already. If they just stick to the law of the river, Phoenix agriculture will basically be wiped out.”

Local farms have already done much to conserve water and continue to look for ways to do more.

They work closely with the University of Arizona's Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture to find new and better ways to get the most out of limited water supplies.

Stephanie Slinksi, the center’s associate director for research, says the local ag community has its eyes on the future.

“I really enjoy working with this one, they’re very forward thinking, thinking about the future, thinking about what changes need to be made,” Slinksi said.

Hobbs learned the quantity of the water isn’t the only concern for Yuma farmers.

“Our biggest problem here is the salts. The Colorado River to us is good, sweet water. Well, it’s got 800 parts...” Vic Smith started to say, when McGuire interjected.

“2,000 pounds per acre foot, we use three acre feet to grow a lettuce crop, a little less than that, so every acre of lettuce we’re adding 6,000 pounds of salt, and we have to get rid of it to keep growing,” McGuire said.

Hobbs was curious.

“How do you get rid of the salt?” she asked.

“People come in the summertime and you’re driving around you see these flat fields with water standing on it, a flat flood. And what we’re doing is we’re washing those salts down past the root zone,” replied McGuire.

For Hobbs, it was a lot to take in, but important information she’ll need if she hopes to inhabit the governor’s office.

“My focus right now is opening that door and starting these conversations now so we can get right to work on day one,” she said after the discussion.

And farmers like McGuire say it’s important she hear their message.

"It kind of looks like it’s going to come down to the feds sometime in August and they’re going to tell us how it’s going to be, and that doesn’t usually turn out really good ‘cause there’s 450 farmers over here, and 450 farmers over there, and that’s not just that many votes when it comes to politicians, and they don’t pay attention to us,” he said.

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To hear more of the farmer’s conversation with Hobbs, join us Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. for a special water-focused edition of the Field from KAWC.

Lisa Sturgis’ return to KAWC brings her journalistic career full circle. Uncle Bob Hardy gave Lisa her first exposures to reporting back in the 1980s. She went on to spend more than three decades in TV news before making the decision to come home to NPR.
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