Stefanie Smallhouse Arizona Republic
Why Do Farmers Want Congress to Invest in Airports? Our Livelihood Depends on It
April 19, 2021
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  • Opinion: Americans depend on Arizona’s agriculture to put food on their table. And farmers? We depend on transportation and aviation in particular.

    In a normal year, Yuma and Maricopa counties support close to 90% of the United States’ winter lettuce. Our food supply chain employs more than 160,000 workers, and around 37% of the state’s nearly 20,000 farms and ranches raise cattle, totaling just under 1 million head of cattle and $521 million of export value. Our dairy industry produces greater than 4.8 billion pounds of milk per year.

    The last year has challenged this supply chain in more ways than we could have imagined. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ripped through our workforce, and the impact of this pandemic on our transportation system, our farms and ranches have experienced a double hit. Some general aviation airports throughout the state reported as much as a 50% decrease in activity, including the Flagstaff Pulliam and Grand Canyon airports.

    Arizona’s farms and ranches are #Stillfarming and #Stillranching despite this.

    Farmers couldn’t survive without aviation

    But the truth is, our agricultural industry can’t survive without transportation and aviation in particular, including our network of small airports and aircraft. Congress must bear this in mind as it contemplates building up our country’s infrastructure.

    Arizona’s farmers, ranchers and other agricultural businesses use general aviation, or smaller, noncommercial aircraft, to transport employees to job sites, send parts and mechanics to fix machinery in the field, travel to livestock auctions around the region, receive specialty veterinary support, meet with customers and commodity buyers, and apply fertilizer and protection products to crops.

    For example, lettuce producers use these aircraft to support operations between Yuma County, and Salinas, Calif., seasonally, and general aviation helps businesses in the region to operate more efficiently.

    It also supports critical emergency services such as firefighting, medical transportation, search and rescue, border security, and natural disaster relief. These aircraft help us maintain our power grids, inspect pipelines and manage public lands efficiently.

    This is especially critical for rural communities. Of the more than 5,000 public-use airports in the United States, most commercial traffic goes through only the 30 largest hubs. The vast majority of airports support general aviation that connect farms, ranches and rural businesses to critical resources, suppliers and markets. 

    Rural areas especially need Congress’ help

    This is also why Arizona Farm Bureau and American Farm Bureau list “Work for greater investment in rural and agricultural infrastructure, including broadband, internet access, rural roads and bridges, inland waterway locks and dams, seaports and agricultural research” as one of our priority issues.

    We must have strong transportation and logistics links in the agriculture supply chain to meet the needs of the local and global food supply chain.

    Especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, general aviation is helping to support public health in rural communities. Organizations like Angel Flight West have partnered with groups like With Love From Strangers to deliver personal protective equipment and other medical supplies by small aircraft to rural communities and Native American reservations in the Four Corners region.

    In addition, the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport is critical to supporting activities at the Flagstaff Medical Center, the only Level 1 trauma center in northern Arizona, and facilitates firefighting and more than 1,600 air ambulance flights each year.

    Small airports need funding, workers

    Congress must act to advance small airports and general aviation, as this infrastructure is critical to rural communities and Arizona’s agricultural industry.

    This means not only ensuring that we continue to support funding for these operators and airports but that we invest in the future workforce of aviation personnel and critical areas such as sustainable fuel and new and emerging technologies.

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    North America will need 208,000 new pilots over the next 20 years, according to Boeing. These small aircraft and airports may not be as well-known as our large commercial airports, but they are critical to our economy, food supply and way of life.

    Arizona has a long history of agriculture and aviation, including many of our farmers and ranchers operating as private pilots especially dependent on these regional airports. These industries move our economy forward in concert and for the greater good of everyone.

    Let’s continue to support this critical part of our infrastructure.

    Stefanie Smallhouse is a southern Arizona rancher and president of Arizona Farm Bureau.