Sustainability is a theme that runs throughout the work of the University of Arizona's (UA) Cooperative Extension program.

For more than 80 years Cooperative Extension has used classes, seminars, workshops and other methods to bring research-based information to farmers and ranchers throughout Arizona.

"Cooperative Extension agents work with producers to be economically viable while engaging the public and also helping to insure we have a minimal negative impact on the environment," said Rick Gibson, Pinal County's Cooperative Extension director.

Arizona growers have been able to dramatically reduce their use of toxic substances by implementing integrated pest management (IPM), said Peter Ellsworth, state Integrated Pest Management (IPM) coordinator and director of the Arizona Pest Management Center.

"IPM represents the sustainable option for pest control," said Ellsworth, Extension specialist and UA professor of entomology. "It really is the world standard for science-based sustainable management of pests.

"It's amazing how few pesticides are even needed anymore and how the (agricultural) industry has continually improved its pest management programs," Ellsworth said.

The number of pesticide spray applications for all insect pest problems during the period from 2006 to 2009 was 1.5 per crop per season, down from 10 to 12 per crop per season in the 1990s, he said.

"Our ultimate goal is to manage the entire agro-ecosystem so there is a better balance that requires fewer disruptive interventions, and IPM is the way to get to that point," Ellsworth said.

One example is multi-state research the UA is leading on crop placement, both on the farm scale and wider scale.

Monitoring and manipulating the proximity of different types of crops can help prevent pest problems because some pests move from crop to crop if fields are close enough, Ellsworth said.

And because fewer pesticides are being used, beneficials - insects that benefit crops by eating pests or providing pollination services - are reemerging in fields.

A new instructional tool - similar to a video game - is in the works to show farmers how they can benefit by focusing on crop placement, and working with neighboring farmers to reduce pest problems and boost beneficials on a multi-farm scale.

"We are currently working on developing a game training simulation, essentially a virtual farm, so we can go to grower communities and sit them down with our laptops and look at different scenarios," Ellsworth said. "We will show them a virtual world, a virtual farm, and how bugs spread throughout a system and at what scale, and demonstrate the economic impact."

Growers playing the game can arrange crops on their virtual-farm randomly or the way they normally do, then see the economic consequences of pest damage. Then trainers will run them through the same exercises after they have an interaction with their neighbors to discuss strategies for crop placement throughout the community.

Growers can see the benefit of looking at the spatial aspect of planting, and a cost reduction report will be offered at the end of the exercise.

"If there is enough communication and cooperation there can be a reduction of risk from the pest insects over a broad landscape," Ellsworth said.

IPM has already meant big savings for Arizona farmers.

"We estimate growers adopting our IPM programs in cotton alone saved over $212 million since 1996," Ellsworth said. "We are making agriculture more efficient. Everything we are doing is making our growers more sustainable."

Cooperative Extension's Erin Taylor works with immigrants, primarily from Africa and Asia, who are trying to set up farming operations in Arizona.

Many of the people in the International Rescue Committee program are refugees who came to the United States to escape civil wars and persecution, said Taylor, area assistant agent for field crops in Maricopa County.

A lot of them have some kind of farming roots and want to farm here," Taylor said.

"We teach a more modern way of farming. A lot of them never used any kind of equipment. They used oxen, cows, or horses or did it by hand. We're helping them learn to use planting equipment, rototillers, more modern drip irrigation."

Economic sustainability for the farms is one of the major challenges the immigrants taking part in the program face, Taylor said. The biggest hurdle is teaching the farmers the business aspect of their agricultural endeavors.

"The program helps them get started, but they haven't learned the business end to make it sustainable: how to sell their product, take the money, set aside money for next year's crops, and use the rest to live off of. They don't understand how it works," Taylor said.

"That is the hardest part. We are working with them on financial classes and farm planning classes."

About 120 people join the refugee agriculture program each year. Many fail, but three to five successful farming operations emerge each year, resulting in about 15 success stories during the three years Taylor has been involved in the program.

Participants typically begin by working half to a full acre, and then expand when successful. One project farm near Eloy, Ariz., is 50 acres.

"They start small and slowly are building their business," Taylor said.