Arizona farmland shrinks and farmers keep adapting

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GILBERT, Ariz. -- The city of Gilbert used to be known as the "Hay Capital" but recently, development started on the last uninterrupted square mile of farmland. Census numbers show it is a shrinking Arizona resource. One local family continues to find the balance with farming and development.

Heavy equipment smoothes and shapes this parcel of land where corn grew a few short months ago.

“This was the right time to sell 80 acres out of this,” Scott Morrison said.

Morrison's grandfather started this farm in Gilbert before World War II. His father and uncle expanded the operation in the 1950s and '60s.

“Came out with my dad every morning and by the time I was 10 I had a job raking hay,” Morrison said.

Starting in the '80s, Gilbert’s population began to double about every five years and even with the recession, it now sits close to 220,000 people. It was fewer than 2,000 until 1970.

The Morrison family still farms thousands of acres, but Scott and his brother Howard continue to develop subdivisions of Morrison Ranch as the market dictates. He is proud of the newest addition called Elliot Groves, but he admits part of him laments the changes happening to the family land that has grown all sorts of crops over the years.

With few exceptions, the land is worth more for housing development as soon as the city reaches it.

“We began to get negative interaction with neighbors and that made it seem like maybe it was time for a change,” Morrison said.

Morrison said beyond the financial incentive to sell, suburbanites looking for a small-town feel don't always want to hear and smell the farming and ranching that kept the town small in the first place.

“Farming is a 24/7 operation,” Morrison said. “Especially during tilling season, you're going to run tractors all night long and the neighbors didn't understand that, didn't appreciate that.”

The U.S. Census of Agriculture shows land in farms is disappearing in Maricopa County. From 1997 to 2007, the total dropped 35 percent.

“It just shows we have to become more efficient,” said Julie Murphree with the Arizona Farm Bureau.  “We're going to have to apply modern technology if we want the type of agriculture we have here in Arizona.”

Murphree said farms have become more efficient, doubling and tripling production over that same time period. But in Arizona, someone desiring to be a farmer can't just start irrigating new land.

“There is no unused water anywhere in this state where someone can start farming new ground,” Morrison said.

But Morrison thinks farming will continue to evolve as the population around Phoenix surges. For his part, his development holds on to the past. Morrison Ranch features white rail fences and long rows of trees reminiscent of the orchards that once stood there.