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FLINN-BROWN PHOTO JOURNAL

Paul Brierley

‎Executive Director | Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture, University of Arizona

Paul Brierley (right) oversees planting at the first commercial field trial since 2002 on the devastating Fusarium wilt of lettuce disease in Yuma.

Arizona agriculture, far from being just an industry from Arizona’s past—Cotton, Citrus and Cattle are 3 of the 5 Cs said to drive Arizona’s early economy—contributes over $17 billion to today’s economy and enhances our quality of life. For many rural areas of Arizona, agriculture is the backbone of the economy and economic development.

The first key to sustainably producing a safe and reliable food supply is the ability for farmers and ranchers to make a living, and that takes leadership on public-policy issues such as water availability, labor supply, workforce development, international trade, taxation, regulation, environmental footprint, and urban encroachment.

I grew up on a diversified family farm in California, became a computer scientist at the University of Colorado, and spent five years performing telecommunications research in the San Francisco Bay Area before moving to rural Arizona to return to my agricultural roots.

As a small-business owner, I was a volunteer leader in my county Farm Bureau and other local organizations. After graduating from the Project CENTRL rural-leadership program, I followed my desire to impact public-policy issues and joined the staff of the Arizona Farm Bureau, working to engage and empower volunteer leaders all around the state. My years in grassroots politics, and training as a Flinn-Brown Fellow, have led to even more civic activity, including service on a variety of boards of directors.

With over 25 years of experience in agriculture, applied research, leadership, and politics, I was recently selected as the inaugural executive director of the University of Arizona’s Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture, a public-private partnership focusing on innovative solutions to desert agriculture’s pressing problems, such as plant pests and diseases, water and nutrient management, and mechanization/automation. The application of technology to agriculture is a common theme on which we focus, drawing on my backgrounds as both engineer and agriculturist.

Brierley examines a lettuce test plot with research professors Dr. John Palumbo (left) and Dr. Kurt Nolte (right) at UA’s Yuma research farm. Yuma County produces 90 percent of North America’s leafy greens in the winter months.

Brierley is about to send a lettuce plant to be “examined” during an after-hours MRI imaging session.  Collaborating with an advanced-technology company and USDA researchers to identify methods for underground imaging of root systems, to better understand drought and salt tolerance, is one of the ways that YCEDA is working to enhance agricultural productivity.

Being a leader in agricultural innovation, in an agricultural-centric community like Yuma, provides many opportunities for public speaking and media engagement: everything from speaking to hundreds of people at an international symposium on lettuce disease to live radio shows on ag labor and water use, and TV interviews on everything from biological-control programs to crop damage from heavy rains. People are always surprised at how tech-savvy the agricultural industry has become in order to productively and efficiently use inputs such as water, chemicals, and labor.

Being a leader in one of Arizona’s key industries—especially one that is often misunderstood, like agriculture—gives me many opportunities to interact with state and national leaders. Here I joined other industry leaders in a round-table discussion with Sen. John McCain to discuss key agricultural regulations and economic development.

Agriculture is a major driver in cross-border trade with Mexico and is integral to solutions on labor and immigration, water supplies, transportation, and border infrastructure. Working with the Arizona-Mexico Commission, I led a delegation of Yuma farmers to meet with Mexico’s Minister of the Secretariat of Agriculture to explore joint opportunities and solutions to the roadblocks in the way of increased prosperity on both sides of the border.

One of my “hobbies” for over 25 years has been grassroots involvement in the Republican Party. Starting with election as a precinct committeeman in Graham County, I have served as county chairman, legislative-district chairman, state committeeman, and on the state executive committee. I’ve worked to earn respect as a leader who provides everyone a level playing field regardless of political differences we might have; I’ve found that allows the organization to be effective even during periods of political strife.

I was elected as a state-wide delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where I got to spend time with Gov. Ducey and two other Flinn-Brown Fellows, Jay Schlum and Brandy Wells.

What I have found most valuable in my political involvement are the personal relationships I’ve built over the years with many people who are now in local, state, and federal elected positions. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work with a variety of these leaders on recent agricultural issues.

I believe that “the world is run by those who show up.” Rural Arizona and the agriculture industry both need a voice, especially because of to their limited populations. Over 90 percent of Arizona’s population is urban, and only about 1 percent works in agriculture. I have found that by showing up and taking leadership roles in different organizations – the Farm Bureau, Project CENTRL, Flinn-Brown, the Republican Party, Arizona Town Hall, the University of Arizona — I have built multiple overlapping networks of leaders that I can work with to keep Arizona moving forward.