Arizona Farms Shrinking in Number, Growing in Size

(Source: KTAR): Griselda Zetino – Jim Boyle Jr.’s family has a long history in dairy farming.

They’ve owned dairy farms in Arizona since the early 1920s, first in south Phoenix and then in Mesa.

Boyle’s roots in dairy farming is one of the reasons he returned home after he left for college and lived in New York for several years.

“I kind of needed a career change and figured I’d raise my kids just like the way I was raised, which is out on the dairy,” he said. “That’s been a good decision. We’ve been back here for the past 14 years.”Boyle now manages the three dairies his parents own. Two of them are in Mesa and one is in Casa Grande. The oldest dairy in Mesa dates back to 1978. Dairy has become one of the biggest agricultural commodities across the Valley.

New agricultural census data, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, finds livestock production in Maricopa County, particularly dairy and cattle, accounts for 61% of the county’s total agricultural product sales. Crops account for 39%.

The new data also finds farms like the ones Boyle’s family own are becoming less common. The number of farms in Arizona dropped by about 5% from 2012 to 2017. There are currently about 19,100 farms across the state.

Though there are fewer farms, they are becoming larger. The number of farms in Arizona with at least 1,000 acres nearly doubled from 2012 to 2017, according the new agricultural census data.

Boyle said he thinks the increase in urbanization, especially in the East Valley, is one reason Arizona is seeing fewer farms.

His family’s two dairies in Mesa – which are about 150 acres combined and have some 1,500 cows – have felt the impact of urbanization. Cars now speed by on the Loop 202 and new housing developments in the area have made it difficult to expand operations.

That led his family to buy land in Casa Grande, where their Casa Grande Dairy Company now sits. It’s 1,500 acres and there are 3,500 cows on the property.

Boyle said labor is another probable cause for the shrinking number of farms in Arizona.

“It’s a constant struggle to find skilled farm laborers,” he said.

Boyle said the summer heat hasn’t been an issue, at least for his family’s dairies. He said they set up fans and misters to keep the cows cool during the summer.

“Arizona is a good place to milk cows,” he said. “We actually get some of the highest dairy production in the country here, and it’s because outside of the three to four months during the summer, it’s really lovely weather.”