Tim Steller

Arizona Daily Star columnist Tim Steller

Tucson used to be a ranching town in an agricultural state.

In today’s urbanized Arizona, though, farmer-ranchers like Stefanie Smallhouse are a rarity. Smallhouse and her husband, Andy, operate the Carlink Ranch northeast of Tucson along the San Pedro River, and she is also president of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, a powerful agricultural industry group.

Despite how rare people like the Smallhouses are among Arizona’s metro-centered populace, farmers won a solid victory with the passage of the drought contingency plan last week. The plan commits to providing Pinal County farmers $9 million toward converting from Colorado River water back to groundwater pumping by 2023. That was $4 million more than the $5 million the plan contained before the Legislature amended it, almost doubling state funding for these farmers in transition.

Smallhouse and other ag representatives also pushed successfully for a separate $20 million commitment that is expected to be covered by federal grants. But it’s likely the broader solution of the Pinal farmers’ water-sourcing problems will also lead to more problems that need solving soon, too.

“It’s going to be basically a continual discussion, as long as we’re in this pattern of moisture, or lack of moisture,” Smallhouse told me Friday. “What stresses me out and what keeps me up at night is agriculture will always be on the chopping block. Because the question will always be, what’s the priority use for water?”

Her comments reminded me of a strange contradiction I find in Arizona’s increasingly high-stakes agricultural politics. Farmers and ranchers frequently speak of themselves as misunderstood underdogs. And in a way they’re right — city dwellers like me don’t get them and probably don’t appreciate them. But they are also far more powerful than their numbers and even their economic importance to the state would dictate.

“In general, the public cares deeply about farmers and ranchers. However, they totally don’t understand how we do our job,” Smallhouse said. “We have a powerful voice. Lawmakers do pay attention to us, because of the fact that, at the end of the day, people at some point say, ‘That’s right, that’s where we get our food and fiber. That’s important.’”

Money also plays a role, of course. The Farm Bureau Federation was a significant but not overwhelming donor to legislative independent expenditure campaigns, spending about $54,000 in the last election cycle, according to the Arizona secretary of state’s records.

For state Sen. Victoria Steele, a Tucson Democrat, the agricultural pressure this session has been excessive and overshadowed other legitimate interests.

“I don’t believe at all that they’re the underdogs,” Steele told me. “What I saw the past three weeks since I’ve been at the Legislature was a full-court press. It was all agriculture all the time.”

“The emphasis on the ‘poor farmers’ got to be ridiculous,” she added. “I’m not against the farmers, please don’t get me wrong. But I’ve felt that everybody has been singling out agriculture and not really realizing the cities are sacrificing, too. The tribes are sacrificing, too.”

Indeed, agriculture is by far the biggest user of water in Arizona, using about 74 percent of Arizona’s supply, according to the Department of Water Resources. Municipalities, in contrast, use about 21 percent.

That’s where Smallhouse’s food-and-fiber argument comes into play. She says, essentially, that food production isn’t just any water use — it’s food security, even national security. So when people question agriculture’s existence in Arizona, she says the public wants it, and for good reason.

“A strong contingent of their public wants their food grown locally. Arizona is important to the country because we can grow food year-round. We can grow a diverse group of crops.”

But what if the cost of growing our own food and fiber is depleting the aquifer beneath Pinal County’s farms, as farmers switch back to groundwater pumping? After all, even with Colorado River water being delivered to the farms, fissures have opened up in the ground in Pinal County and subsidence occurred as the dropping groundwater shifted the land.

Smallhouse said she’s hopeful that won’t be the case because of changes in the area’s agriculture since 1980, when Arizona’s groundwater law went into effect.

“There are fewer of them than in the 1980s,” Smallhouse said, adding, “They’ve implemented a ton of efficiencies. Those who are left are as efficient as they can be.”

”We’re not looking at the same picture of groundwater use that we were looking at in the 1980s.”

And yet, Democrats repeatedly pointed out during the debate over the plan that many Pinal County farmers grow particularly thirsty crops, like cotton. It would diminish the skepticism of many Arizona urbanites if those farmers converted to growing less water-intensive crops.

Smallhouse, who largely raises cattle and grows forage crops, said switching crops will always cost time and money. The Smallhouses are the fifth generation of Andy’s family to run the ranch, and even this generation has diversified multiple times over the years as conditions changed — a decade ago they even started a saguaro cactus nursery in part as a hedge against a drier climate.

“They have millions of dollars in capital investment in that crop they’re growing right now,” she said of farmers. “To transition to a different crop requires completely different equipment, different inputs, they have to learn about that crop. All of those things take time.”

In the Smallhouses’ case, the family has changed irrigation practices gradually over 20 years to use less water, she said. It took time, money and effort going from flood irrigation to primarily using center-pivot sprinklers as they do now. Drip irrigation, she found, tends to be too sensitive and costly a system for their operation, one of the few that still can use surface water from the San Pedro River.

Now that she and the rest of the agricultural sector have won Pinal County farmers public subsidies, though, I think it’s fair even for urbanites to make greater demands on them, whether it be for more efficient irrigation or switching crops or leaving more land fallow.

The farmers’ successful depiction of agriculture as a misunderstood industry deserving public support gives the public leverage over them to conserve more. The nonfarmers, after all, deserve a strong voice in this, too.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter