Can Southern Arizona be protein self-sufficient in the face of climate change?

By: Gary Nabhan

Adapting Food to Hot Dry & Hungry for ChangeOn a hot June day in the Flowing Wells neighborhood of northeast Tucson, 45 ranchers, farmers, chefs, butchers and range ecologists met to talk about the future of meat production, processing and local distribution in Southern Arizona.  Most of the participants knew that meat prices and demand were at an all-time high in Tucson and North America as a whole, but they also some of the reasons for why that was true: drought had knocked back rangeland cattle numbers; the use of corn for subsidized ethanol production had made it scarce in feedlots; and most of the cattle produced in state is shipped off to be finished someplace else before being butchered, packaged and shipped back into the state at a relatively high cost.  But as Cochise County rancher Dennis Moroney told the group, they were gathered there to discuss more than the economic benefits of relocalizing the meat industry in Southern Arizona: “We are reinventing a way to bring good food to people in our community.” In short, the gathering was as much about values: the importance of sustaining rural livelihoods, human health and land health in the face of climate change as it was about how many pounds of meat from Southern Arizona could get direct-marketed into the Tucson economy.

Co-sponsored by Pima County’s Natural Resources Division, Arizona Land and Water Trust, the Pima County Food Alliance, and the University of Arizona Kellogg Program on Food and Water Security for the Borderlands, the workshop attracted talent from three states and five Arizona counties. It was keynoted by Courtney White, author of Revolution on the Range and Quivira Coalition Founder.  He reminded us that while ranchers in the Southwest have faced climate uncertainty for three centuries, much of the region remains in the “bull’s eye” of long-term drought, and many ranchers are keeping their cattle at stocking rates that are less than half of what they were fifteen years ago. And yet, hite contends that smart ranchers scattered across the region are adapting to climate change through changing the breed s of cattle to smaller, hardier ones, resting some pastures longer than they had in the past, and carefully managing water resources. Even if they have cut back on the numbers of heads they keep, they are making more money by direct-marketing their cattle with eco-labels such as grassfed, animal welfare-certified, or heritage breed-registered. In White’s forthcomingg book, Carbon Country, he expresses hope that these “carbon ranchers” can serve as models for the rest of us in reducing our carbon “foodprints.”

Next came Jim McManus and Tina Bartsch of Walking J Ranch, who took us through the many challenges they face and innovations they have improvised while establishing a  “polyculture farm/ranch” near Arivaca Junction.  In moving detail, they told of the exhausting number of variables which affect their livelihood and family life while trying to bring beef, pork, chicken and vegetable to market each week at four southern Arizona locations. With just 30 irrigated acres among their 72 acres of land along Sopori Wash,  McManus and Bartsch affirmed their commitment to generating healthy soil, a diversity of crops and healthy food to help build a resilient local food system. A the same time, they were brutally honest about the challenges they face: “economies of scale associated with a small land base;, limited availability of working capital; the seasonality of available forage for their  meat supply to meet growing demand;  scarce water resources; sourcing non-GMO feed from mills in the region; distance to slaughter facilities and farmers markets; and lack of easily-accessible cold storage.”

After the Walking J Ranch presentation, range ecologist Mitch McClaran reminded us that over the last fifteen years, local rangelands (in the Santa Ritas) have suffered 10 of the driest years back-to-back since 1940.

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