Back in 2015, I was prompted to ask long-time friend and fellow Pinal County farm kid, Bryan Hartman, how his water district was going to handle the expected “call on the river.” Even six years ago Pinal County farmers discussed the issue extensively and were preparing for it. Now the Bureau of Reclamation officially declared a Tier One shortage in August, as expected.
Did our Pinal County farmers plan well enough? Why do they appear to have come up short knowing this was most likely going to happen even six years ago?
Hartman is president of the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District (MSIDD), created in 1962 for the purpose of providing irrigation water for agricultural use in the area.
Director of the Maricopa Economic Development Alliance and a principal of the Santa Cruz Ranch Partnership, Hartman is a fourth-generation farmer who assumed the mantle of the family farming tradition during young adulthood. As a principal in the Santa Cruz Ranch Partnership, Hartman is responsible for the management of a 2,000-acre farm operation whose major crops include alfalfa, corn, cotton and sorghum. In addition, he is the owner of the C Spear Ranch, located in Benson, Arizona, where primary operations are comprised of pasture crops and a cow-calf operation. Previously, Hartman was manager of the Hartman Ranch Partnership, consisting of his family’s original homestead and farming operations.
We’ll be coming out with a more in-depth article in November. In the meantime, Hartman gave some preliminary insight as to what Pinal County agriculture can expect.
Arizona Agriculture: What’s the boots-on-the-ground impact to farmers in Pinal County with the water cuts.
Hartman: Obviously, 2021 is the last year of our full CAP surface water allotment. Our irrigation canal system was developed and designed in the 1980s to deliver surface water throughout the district supplemented with groundwater. Starting next year (2022) we farmers will have to rely mainly on groundwater. Of note, we are limited in our ability to transport groundwater. We are faced with delivering primarily groundwater throughout the Irrigation District in which it was not designed to do.
By 2030 we all knew we’d have surface water cuts to agriculture in Pinal County, regardless. So as early as 2004 we began planning and preparing for the inevitable. Additionally, as the drought became more severe, we sped up our mitigation efforts including investing millions in infrastructure projects for our irrigation district, dollars we spent even before any state and federal dollar assistance that has become available. Now we have the 2021 shortage declaration by the Bureau of Reclamation in the history books. But every farmer in Pinal County anticipated the declaration. No surprises here. Despite our expectations of the Bureau declaring a shortage, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt to hear the word “shortage.”
Their declaration makes it official, final and irreversible. As farmers and ranchers always do, we move forward and work toward resolving the challenges agriculture presents to us daily. Remember, if we don’t farm in a “controlled” environment (greenhouse), we must regularly mitigate for weather outcomes. Ask the Arizona rancher this summer who was preparing to liquidate his herd if he didn’t get the summer rains we finally received, just in time.
Arizona Agriculture: How are you adjusting your crop portfolio? Especially for next year?
Hartman: We are planning on fallowing more land. Next year we won’t have any excess CAP water, but we will have some mitigation surface water for 2022 that was set up through the DCP agreement.
Arizona Agriculture: In a best-case scenario, what would have to happen for all this to go away? Has this 20+year drought meant that recouping would take years?
Hartman: If it snows again at record levels in the upper Colorado basin as it did a few years ago it might help us. But we are being told there is a structural deficit and with all the urban growth it is unlikely excess CAP water will return in large quantities. Plus, we need back-to-back years of solid snowpack in the Colorado Rockies for all this to go away.
Arizona Agriculture: What is the region’s economic impact with the cuts?
Hartman: The economic impact on Arizona agriculture, certainly Pinal County, will be tough on agriculture and the region. Less opportunity for farmers to earn an income. Dairies will have less feed, equipment dealers fewer sales, etc.
Arizona Agriculture: What will be the impact on consumers?
Hartman: Potentially, higher costs to consumers in the short term and less supply and higher prices in the long term.
You must remember, a significant number of our Arizona dairies -- family-owned, but large -- relocated to Pinal County as development pushed them out of Tempe and Chandler. So now, many of our efficient and large family-owned dairies reside in Pinal County, not Maricopa County.
Much of the dairy is local. In other words, when you go to the dairy case in your local grocery store, we’re told that 97% of the product is local. Because we have so many dairies in Pinal County, this is where you and I might notice the most significant rise in prices. I don’t like trying to predict anything and I hope I’m wrong, but because the supply chain is so short here and so local, if we see anything along this line, this is where we could see it.
Arizona Agriculture: Where is Pinal County in 20 years … does agriculture still exist?
Hartman: There will still be agriculture in Pinal County in 20 years. A lot smaller due to urban sprawl. Only the strong and well-capitalized farmers will be here in 20 years. Obliviously a lot fewer acres and water resources. Maybe more opportunities with effluent water being used for agriculture.
We already have less agriculture in Pinal County. 50,000 acres already moved away from agriculture and now represent commercially developed land. The good news, technology improvements in agriculture allow us to produce more with less. Our output “per acre” has grown significantly over the decades.
Editor’s Note: Arizona agriculture asked these questions of Hartman in early summer. Watch for the November/December “Conversation” article we have with Bryan Hartman where we drill down a bit deeper on the water issue and the 2022 cuts.