Arizona’s Farmhand

A lifelong family farmer, Mark Killian now oversees 200 employees,
an $8 million budget, and a $17 billion a year agricultural economy
as the director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

January 5, 2016

In the BusinessIssue 16: January/February 2016
Mark Killian is the director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture. What’s up with the SPAM? Killian said that the Department of Agriculture is the second largest consumer of SPAM in Arizona. They cut it up into little pieces and use it to attract fire ants so they can eliminate them.

Mark Killian is the director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture. What’s up with the SPAM? Killian said that the Department of Agriculture is the second largest consumer of SPAM in Arizona. They cut it up into little pieces and use it to attract fire ants so they can eliminate them.

What is your vision for the Department of Agriculture?

I’m hopeful that under my direction the department can advocate for both large production agriculture and small farm operations because I place them both together. Small farmers are a piece of the puzzle for future food production. They probably won’t replace production agriculture on a large scale, but we need as many avenues of production as possible and the smaller growers fit in well.

I raise chickens for a hobby and grow pumpkins on my ranch in Show Low to sell at farmers’ markets. Whether you’re the biggest production farmer or a backyard carrot grower, if I can do something to help you, that’s what I’m going to do.

How would your describe yourself?

I’m a Mormon and my religion defines me and guides me in how I think and what I do. After my mission, I married my sweetheart, Nancy, and we have six children. I love horses and dogs and raise ranch quarter horses and Australian shepherds as well as too many chickens to count.

What is the state of Arizona’s agriculture?

Production agriculture in Arizona is growing, and because of California’s water shortages, we’re beginning to see producers come into our state, like some West Coast vegetable growers now looking at the Eloy area to farm their crops. The cattle industry is coming back and the genetics of the overall herd is improving. The dairy industry continues to grow with more dairies arriving in the state and, because of avian flu, I think we’re going to see the same thing with egg production. Arizona will be a destination spot for broilers, turkeys, egg production—it’s all positive.

What does our water future look like?

Approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water flows into Pima, Pinal, and Maricopa Counties yearly and irrigated agriculture uses nearly 70 percent of available water. But we’ve got a ton of water underground called brackish water that we haven’t even tapped yet that gives us an insurance policy for the future. Fifteen consecutive years of drought conditions affect us, sure, but I’m still optimistic.

Now that Lake Mead has dropped to its lowest historic level, and future water rationing seems imminent, what is your vision for helping Arizona farmers and ranchers adapt to higher water prices and periodic drought-driven water scarcity?

I would not agree that water rationing is imminent. Arizona ranchers and farmers have been preparing for the possibility for decades, and we continue. In 1980 we created the Groundwater Management Code that addressed the drought, allocated the current groundwater resources, and provided an actionable plan to replace groundwater. People in agriculture understand exactly how valuable water is; they’ve been using technology to enhance efficiency in production. We’ll work with our current partners to educate and share developments when they become available and when they become more cost efficient.

Where does Arizona rank in agricultural output?

Those who plow dirt in this state do so in prolific fashion. Arizona ranks third in the nation for overall production of fresh market vegetables, producing close to 90 million cartons of fresh produce last year. The state ranks second nationally in production of leaf, iceberg, and romaine lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, cantaloupes, and honeydew melons.

Dept of Agriculture Logo

Arizona imports $3.2 billion in foodstuffs while exporting $2.8 billion. Why is that?

You always want to export more than you import, but importation also brings money into the state and that’s good. It’s just a matter of our ability as a state to increase our production and trade agreements and a lot of that is handled at the federal level. We employ a lot of people and buy a lot of stuff to do our job and to equalize the import/export balance. It’s time for our industry to be humbly aggressive in educating people about just what a great production operation we represent. We’ve been so busy doing what we do that we’ve not articulated our mission as well as we could. Everything about Arizona agriculture is a net positive. But in order for us to survive in an atmosphere where radical environmentalists and people who advocate against production agriculture exist, we need to better educate the general public and our policy makers about what we do, how we do it, and the reach of our agriculture dollars. We need to stop apologizing for what we do. We’re a sleeping giant that needs to awaken, to dispel some of the negative myths about agriculture, and spread our positive message.

How will you accomplish this?

One way is through education, a resumption of former Agriculture Days on university campuses. We’re going to approach the presidents of UA, ASU, and NAU and see if we can’t bring that back—a day where production agriculture brings its tractors, farm equipment, and produce to campus so students can ask questions. Right now people are only getting one side of the story and we want to balance that with the farmer story.

So can environmentalists and work more closely together?

I think if environmentalists would quit trying to kick the cowboys off the land and quit trying to keep farmers from farming, we could find some commonality. It’s easy for radicals to paint a picture of “terrible corporate farms,” and PETA, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and others pick on us all the time, but in most cases, folks in agriculture care about the land and their animals because they’re dependent on both for their survival. There’s so much that farmers already do to take care of the land and what it produces; environmentalists need to take a deep breath and work with us.

What would you like to see changed in the state?

It involves government inducements to attract new industry while overlooking current money makers. We get in a hurry to chase big companies like Intel and Apple to relocate and we give away tax breaks to attract them here, yet we’ve got a multibillion-dollar ndustry already here that is sort of ignored. Even though Arizona is rapidly urbanizing, it’s also a rapidly growing agriculture state and the potential is probably brighter than it has ever been. I feel the policy makers, before they run off and offer great deals to out-of-state companies who may never move here, need to re-evaluate how they’re treating agriculture. When all is said and done, agriculture is probably the most important strategic industry in America today. It doesn’t matter how many tanks or planes or walls you build; if you can’t feed or clothe the populace, you’re in tough shape.

Arizona has the highest number of American Indian farmers in the United States; these farms cover almost 21 million acres of land, nearly 80 percent of all farmland in Arizona. Given that “minority” farmers, including Native Americans such as Navajo, Tohono O’odham, Pima, and Cocopah, are now the majority of farmers in the state, how can your department better reach out and provide services to this new majority? Do you have plans to add minority members to your advisory board or staff?

You raise great points concerning potentially increasing collaboration with our Native American agricultural partners. We will investigate potentially adding a Native American member to our Advisory Council, but that may take a statutory change. In the meantime, we are going to establish a Native American Advisory Council to the director. The goal is to have a quarterly meeting with representatives from all tribes. As sovereign nations, the department doesn’t have authority concerning Native American lands. Currently we reach out and provide assistance to the tribes when we’re invited … It’s important to note that much of the agricultural activity on tribal land is done by lease to non-Native Americans.

According to national projections, 200 million acres of American farm and ranch land may change hands within the next decade, and perhaps a fifth of it will go out of food production. You have expressed concern that the rising average age of our food producers and difficult inheritance tax policies are making it difficult to pass land on to young family members who wish to farm and ranch. How will you deal with this pressing issue? 

The issue of legacy farming is critical to the future of our food supply, in Arizona and across the country. One of the biggest impediments to keeping farms in the family is the estate tax. The average age of agriculture professionals is 58, meaning every year the families are closer to facing the estate tax. Many times family-owned farms must be needlessly broken apart to pay taxes, threatening the future of these farmers and ranchers who’ve worked hard to create a family business. It also threatens the cost of food that we put on our tables. Educating the public and policy makers about the inevitable consequences will help.  

Additional reporting by Gary Paul Nabhan.

Lee Allen likes to see what’s growing in other people’s gardens.

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