Arizona agriculture is known for three of the state’s five C’s” Cattle, Citrus, and Cotton, as well as our lettuce industry.
We even claim a bit of ownership to climate and copper since our 300 plus days of sunshine reflect our robust agriculture industry and many recognize mining as a form of harvesting our natural resources, like traditional agriculture.
In a normal year, Yuma and Maricopa counties support close to 90% of the United States’ winter lettuce. Our food supply chain employs more than 160,000 workers, and around 37% of Arizona’s nearly 20,000 farms and ranches raise cattle, totaling just under one million head of cattle and $521 million of export value. Not only that, but our dairy industry also produces greater than 4.4 billion pounds of milk per year.
Agriculture is a critical part of our local and national economy and yet the last year has challenged this supply chain in more ways than we could have imagined. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ripped through our workforce, and the impact of this pandemic on our transportation system, our farms and ranches have experienced a double hit. Some general aviation airports throughout the state reported as much as a 50% decrease in activity, including the Flagstaff Pulliam and Grand Canyon airports, among others.
Despite all this, Arizona’s farms and ranches are #Stillfarming and #Stillranching.
But the truth is that our agricultural industry can’t survive without transportation and aviation in particular, including our network of small airports and aircraft. Arizona’s farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural businesses use general aviation, or smaller, non- commercial aircraft, to transport employees to jobsites, send parts and mechanics to fix machinery in the field, travel to livestock auctions around the region, receive specialty veterinary support, meet with customers and commodity buyers, and apply fertilizer and protection products to crops, among other uses.
For example, lettuce producers use these aircraft to support operations between Yuma County, and Salinas, California seasonally, and general aviation also helps businesses in the region to operate more efficiently. It also supports critical emergency services such as firefighting, medical transportation, search and rescue, border security, and natural disaster relief. These aircraft help us maintain our power grids, inspect pipelines, and manage public lands efficiently.
This is especially critical for rural communities. For example, of the over 5,000 public-use airports in the United States, most commercial traffic goes through only the 30 largest hubs. The vast majority of airports support general aviation that connect farms, ranches, and rural businesses to critical resources, suppliers, and markets.
This is also why Arizona Farm Bureau and American Farm Bureau list “Work for greater investment in rural and agricultural infrastructure, including broadband, Internet access, rural roads and bridges, inland waterway locks and dams, seaports and agricultural research” as one of our priority issues. We must have strong transportation and logistics links in the agriculture supply chain to meet the needs of the local and global food supply chain.
Especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, general aviation is helping to support public health in rural communities. Organizations like Angel Flight West have partnered with groups like With Love From Strangers to deliver personal protection equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies by small aircraft to rural communities and Native American reservations in the Four Corners Region. These flights have delivered 8,300 gowns, 154,000 gloves, 8,500 N95 masks for the hospitals, 493 gallons of water, 88,000 masks, and 749 gallons of hand sanitizer to the tribal communities. Flights for Life transports blood regularly between Flagstaff, Yuma and Phoenix.
In addition, the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport is critical to supporting activities at the Flagstaff Medical Center, the only level 1 trauma center in Northern Arizona, and facilitates firefighting and more than 1,600 air ambulance flights each year.
The next Congress needs to keep in mind the importance of small airports and general aviation, as this infrastructure is critical to rural communities and Arizona’s agricultural industry. This means not only ensuring that we continue to support funding for these operators and airports but that we invest in the future workforce of aviation personnel and critical areas such as sustainable fuel and new and emerging technologies. For example, our North America will need 208,000 new pilots over the next 20 years, according to Boeing. These small aircraft and airports may not be as well-known as our large commercial airports, but they are critical to our local and national economy, food supply and way of life.
Arizona has a long history of agriculture and aviation including many of our farmers and ranchers operating as private pilots especially dependent on these regional airports. These combined industries possess a tradition of moving our economy forward in concert and for the greater good of everyone. Let’s keep our eye on the ball and continue to support this critical part of our infrastructure.
Stefanie Smallhouse is president of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation and a rancher in southern Arizona.