Arizona government retiree fund benefiting from UAE alfalfa farm
By Morgan Loew and Cody Lillich
WENDEN, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - The green fields outside the community of Wenden in western Arizona stretch as far as the eye can see. It is Al Dhara Farms, a company based in the United Arab Emirates. And most of the alfalfa hay grown here is headed to the Middle East.
But the UAE company doesn’t own the actual land. Corporate and property records show a winding path of ownership that leads from the city of Phoenix to an investment fund that includes the Arizona State Retirement System, which invests money for retired state and local government employees.
Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting was the first to draw a connection from the state retirement fund to the UAE farm.
In 2012, the city of Phoenix sold the farm, which it had bought years before for water rights. The listed owner is Arizona Valley Farm, LLC., which is controlled by U.S. Farming Realty Trust II, LP, of which the Arizona State Retirement System (ASRS) is a major investor.
The ASRS committed $175 million to a trust that invests in farmland across the U.S., including the property in Wenden. “Most of the original $175 million that was invested in the trust across the U.S. has since been paid back to the ASRS, with a remaining outstanding investment of approximately $69.9 million as of March 31, 2023,” stated a spokesman for ASRS in an email.
“I was shocked,” said Holly Irwin, a La Paz County supervisor. Irwin has spoken out about the unregulated water pumping at farms like Al Dahra and Fondomonte, which is owned by a company from Saudi Arabia and also sends alfalfa to the Middle East. “I’m grateful that they can provide jobs to the locals here but if we don’t start protecting the water, how long are those jobs going to last?” said Irwin.
The problem, according to Irwin and other critics, is that in most of rural Arizona, property owners are allowed to pump as much water from the land as they want to, with no restrictions from the state. The result is that a growing number of areas are seeing groundwater levels drop. In Wenden, some residents have had to drill new wells because of the declining water levels.
Alfalfa is considered a high-water-use crop. The ASRS reports that the land Al Dahra farms is on in Wenden is listed for sale. “The property has been available sale for several years and is expected to be sold in a year or so. Multiple selling opportunities will be contemplated, including the possible sale for solar or wind power generation in order to further reduce water utilization,” stated the spokesman for ASRS.