PHOENIX — Pinal County rancher Chuck Backus was named Rancher of the Year by the Arizona Farm Bureau at its recent convention.
A nuclear engineer who taught engineering at Arizona State University, Backus also founded the first farm in America that relied entirely on solar power. He has spent the past 40 years developing and implementing technological innovations to support sustainable agriculture. He still does seminars for ranchers on using technology “and improving your bull selection, which is what it’s all about,” he added.
His remote ranch in the Superstition Mountains relies heavily on work done from horseback.
“I tell people, if I can make a go in the rocks and canyons and cactus, you can do it on good ground.”
Farm Bureau President Stefanie Smallhouse noted that the elderly engineer-farmer had a serious accident recently in which “the horse went one way and Chuck went another. We’re just glad to have him with us.”
The annual convention of the Farm Bureau, which is Arizona’s chief lobbying organization for agriculture, brought together leading farmers and ranchers from around the state and focused heavily on regulatory and policy issues that unite farmers, in an era of water shortages, trade wars, technology changes and environmental challenges.
Roughly 1 in 12 American jobs are connected to agriculture, linked to the nation’s 2 million farms and ranches. The number of farms in the U.S. peaked in 1935 at 6.8 million and has declined ever since. Farmers still cultivate a billion acres, but big corporate farms have replaced many of the family operations.
Modern farming remains entangled with government policies, including fresh challenges to the nation’s food safety system. In January, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 62 cases in which a toxic strain of E. coli sickened people in 16 states — including 25 people who were hospitalized. The crisis followed a larger scare in 2018. Some 90% of the winter lettuce comes from Yuma, which daily ships hundreds of thousands of heads of lettuce every day all winter.
Several hundred ranchers and farmers debated policy issues for the coming year. In the past year, the group played a role in securing $29 million in state funding for wells in central Arizona to make it possible to ration water from the drought-plagued Central Arizona Project without devastating farming operations.
The convention honored an all-star list of Arizona farmers and ranchers for their contributions to agriculture — some in the past year, some in the course of a lifetime.