Arizona was not a state, the Civil War ended two decades earlier, the women wore lace collars and long curls and the King family was ranching south of Tucson. Today, the Kings are still roping cattle and raising kids, just as their ancestors did back in the 1880s and one commission is hoping to keep it that way.

The Arizona Agricultural Protection Commission wants to help landowners, farmers and ranchers keep living the family tradition by allowing them to sell their developmental rights. Pat King and others know their livelihood is in jeopardy as the way of the Wild West saunters into history.

“By and large, when you need to sell a parcel or cash out in some way, without this your only alternative is development,” King comments. “To be honest, agriculture does not pay the same as development because it can't. Your commodity does not bring the cash that development does” and once a parcel of land is sold to a developer, it is far more difficult, arguably impossible, to return it to agriculture. King explains that “for people in agriculture, their property is an asset, much like investing in the stock market. If a situation arises where you need to cash out some of that stock you have different options. You have different options with property too.”

The commission is hoping farmers and ranchers will not be forced to sell their land to developers, just to get the money they need to pay bills and this is a growing issue. Between 1990 and 2000, Santa Cruz, Pima and Cochise counties experienced growth rates double that of the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As a result, the Arizona Agricultural Protection Commission hopes to find different groups interested in preserving open spaces to sponsor grants that would allow those in agriculture to sell the development rights but continue doing what they love.

‘Our business’

“That is our business, ranching,” says King and she wants to keep it that way. “We don't work off the ranch for additional income. We raise cattle and that's our job.”

Arizona is not the first state to join federal, state and landowners on a commission to offer conservation easements to the agriculture industry. Colorado began a similar program 12 years ago and now distributes nearly $50 million each year.

Even Governor Janet Napolitano has made this commission a priority. “The Arizona Agricultural Protection Program was established to provide a voluntary option for landowners who have a passion for the their land and choose to prevent it from becoming a sea of red tile roofs,” says Napolitano. The governor knows agriculture is the third largest source of revenue for Arizona with an annual value of more than $6 billion for her state. “It is a way to help protect farm and ranch lands as well as preserve Arizona's precious open space. I look forward to recommendations from the Arizona Agricultural Protection Commission on how we can get this important program up and running in Arizona.”

The board, comprised of 16 members from government to landowners, understands its job has just begun. In addition to finding the funds necessary for the program, commission members must then reach out to the agriculture community and let them know help is available.

“This provides another way for the agriculture community in counties like Yuma and other key agricultural areas to protect what they do and how they do it,” says Don Butler, director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture. “Programs like these help make agriculture viable and encourage one of the state's largest industries.”