Lawmakers tour Yuma ag scene

By Blake Herzog of the Yuma Sun @blakeherzog

Posted by Yuma Sun: Monday, December 22, 2014 8:28 pm

More than 30 Arizona legislators and staff members took a two-day tour of Yuma’s agricultural scene, getting what was for some a new perspective on the importance of the sector to the state and national economy.

The Yuma Area Ag Council sponsors the tour every other year to educate lawmakers expected to tackle water rights and other issues crucial to farmers’ future prospects, and were able to draw a few more this year than in 2012, said Kevin Eatherly, the council chairman.

The itinerary this year included a talk by a University of Arizona economist, Dr. George Frisvold, who is wrapping up years of study about Yuma County’s $2.8 billion agriculture industry, which he said is directly responsible for 1 in 5 jobs, and 1 in 4 when the indirect impact is included.

Frisvold said when considering the area’s contribution to the national farming industry versus the size of the local population, “Yuma is to agriculture what Detroit is to the auto industry, Silicon Valley is to electronics and Napa Valley is to the wine industry.”

His research has found Yuma County is in the top 0.1 percent of U.S. counties for fruits and vegetables and in the top 1 percent for crop and livestock sales.

The group stopped at numerous produce and cotton growing and processing operations, the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation District, meeting with leaders of the Yuma County Water Users Association and touring the Center for Excellence in Desert Agriculture.

The tour is designed to give lawmakers from more urban areas a broader understanding of the industry in and around Yuma. Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro of District 13 is from the West Valley section of Phoenix, but his district was redrawn to include part of Yuma in 2012.

He said this year was the first time he’d been able to go on the ag council tour, though he’s gone to other educational events on the industry. He said the experience buttressed his resolve to continue working to keep Yuma’s water rights intact, and shed new light on other topics.

As it typically does, the group spent hours on the Arizona side of the San Luis border crossing, watching commuting farm workers wait 45 minutes to be cleared by Customs and Border Patrol officers to cross over into the U.S. for a day’s work.

Montenegro said the experience helped him see that issuing permits for farm employees “is not immigration. This is a completely separate issue. The people we have here just come in to work and then go home to their families.”

Overall, he said the most beneficial aspect of the tour was being able to interact from so many of the people behind the agricultural industry, he said, and to see firsthand how powerful the industry is for everyone’s life.

“Yuma is a special place, and we’re trying to highlight that to the rest of the state, and the nation, and really the world. The amount of produce that Yuma provides, it helps feed so many people,” he said. “It helps people on both sides, whether it’s providing employment or providing food.”

State officials have little direct impact on border policy, freshman Democratic Rep. Charlene Fernandez said, but the stop at the border is still useful as they can lobby their counterparts in the federal government to press for change, she said.

Even though she was born and raised in and will be representing Yuma, Fernandez said the tour was a learning experience, particularly as she stepped onto the fields as workers were picking crops.

Complying with food-safety regulations was enough of a task, she said, as she had to wear special clothing and shoes and watch her step. “We had to be very careful about where we walked so we didn’t compromise anything,” she said.

Watching how experienced field workers had to handle the crops and use their own judgement about what would be usable and what wouldn’t gave her a new appreciation. “You hear it all the time, ‘Why don’t they just have convicts do it? Or why don’t they let Americans have those jobs?’ That job is not for just anyone, it’s skilled labor,” she said.

Other Yuma-area legislators, including Sen. Lynne Pancrazi and Rep. Lisa Otonodo, also participated.