A new pilot program in Phoenix could help preserve the city’s disappearing farmland, a few acres at a time.
In 2020, Phoenix lost 200 acres of agricultural land to urban sprawl and development, according to the city.
Many food growers in the Valley are renters because they can’t afford to purchase the land they farm on. If their landlord decides to sell that land to a developer with other uses in mind — like what happened recently to a food farm in Litchfield Park — the farm owners have to move out.
Livestock dominates the majority of farmland in metro Phoenix, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of the farmland used to grow crops, only about 18% is harvested to feed people. A higher percentage of crops is grown as livestock feed to support the region’s dairy and cattle farms.
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On Feb. 1, 2022, Phoenix announced that the city council had approved a budget of $1 million from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to conserve food farms. The COVID-19 stimulus money will be used to purchase development rights from agriculture landowners.
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How the farm conservation program works
Farmworkers clean vegetables at Crooked Sky Farms in Phoenix.
Any landowner whose land is within Phoenix city limits and has been used for food production in the last three years can apply for the Farmland Preservation Program, said Sharma Torrens, an agriculture and conservation consultant who works with the Central Arizona Land Trust, the nonprofit that’s managing the program.
Once approved for the program, the Central Arizona Land Trust and the landowner enter a conservation easement, a contract through which the landowner can sell or donate their development rights, but still retain ownership of the land.
Phoenix pays the landowner 80% of the full sale value of the property, based on a qualified appraisal, and public donations pay the rest of the value.
The landowner receives 100% of the appraised value. While the land can no longer be developed, the landowner can continue leasing the land for farming.
The conservation easement lasts forever. Even if the landowner decides to sell the land later, the easement ensures that the land will always be used for agriculture, despite any changes in ownership.
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How the program is intended to benefit both landowners and small farmers
Bridget Bellavigna, a realtor, explained that agricultural land has lower property taxes. While stripping the development rights lowers its values, landowners still get paid, while retaining ownership.
“On top of that, instead of just owning vacant land, someone is tending to it, caring for it,” she said.
Bellavigna leases to Maya’s Farm in south Phoenix and sold the development rights to about 3.3 acres through the Farmland Preservation Program.
Maya’s Farm, owned by Maya Dailey, sells seasonal and organic vegetables, citruses, herbs, and eggs. The farm offers weekly CSA memberships through its website mayasfarm.com.
“I like the fact that she’s growing food and feeding the city. I think we need more of that in the urban area,” Bellavigna said, pointing to the public benefits of having diverse local food sources, as well green spaces.
Maya Dailey of Maya’s farm, with one of her hens as seen in Phoenix, on October, 2, 2014.
For farmers, this program reduces the risk of being displaced by developers.
Relocating a farm is a time-consuming and costly move for farmers. Relocation requires farmers to find a suitable new plot of ground, after years, possibly decades, of putting nutrients into the soil they leave behind.
The lowered land value also makes it more attainable for them to purchase farmland in the future.
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Juan Carlos begins to load up a truck with vegetables that will be delivered to Maya’s Farm Community Supported Agriculture pickup sites around the Valley.
How to help preserve food farms
Overall, Phoenix City Council has approved more than $9 million of COVID-19 stimulus money for food-related programs, including the Farmland Preservation Program.
Torrens estimates that there are enough funds left to conserve another three to four acres in Phoenix. She hopes that with enough interest and additional funding in the future, the city can continue this program and conserve even more.
Torrens would also like to see other cities in Arizona model their own programs after the one in Phoenix.
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While Phoenix is footing most of the bill in the conservation easements, donations are funding the remainder. These donations can come from a mix of sources, such as large corporations, non-government organizations, and individual donors. The donations are a tax write-off, Torrens said.
Blue Sky Organic Farms is seen in Litchfield Park. Local farms in Maricopa County are slowly disappearing and mainly being replaced by housing developments. Blue Sky Organic Farms will be losing 70% of its land in 2021 to Fulton Homes, which owns the land.
Landowners can submit their application for the conservation easement at centralazlandtrust.org/save-our-farms.
Torrens said the Central Arizona Land Trust will be reopening the donations portal soon on the same website so people can contribute money to protecting local food farms.
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Reach the reporter at Priscilla.Totiya@azcentral.com. Follow @priscillatotiya on Twitter and Instagram.
AUTHOR: Pricilla Totiyapungprasert