Meet Arizona Agriculture’s Cecil Miller Family

By Nancy Brandt, from Arizona Farming and Ranching Hall of Fame Executive Director Carole De Cosmo’s oral history interviews and by Arizona Farm Bureau’s Julie Murphree: It’s been nearly four years since Arizona agriculture lost a treasured leader in Cecil Miller, Sr. This third-generation Arizonan was born into a Salt River Valley farming family and was the son of another Arizona Farm Bureau president, Cecil Miller, Sr. who served from 1941 to 1943 during a time when our nation was at war. Miller Jr. was Arizona Farm Bureau’s longest serving president in history, serving from 1971 to 1992. Wanting to continue celebrating his legacy, this 2008 Arizona Farm and Ranch Hall of Fame recipient is profiled here along with more than 100 farm and ranch families on Arizona Farm Bureau’s “the Voice.”

The scope of Cecil Miller’s activities in and on behalf of agriculture is international in scope. Born in Peoria, Arizona, his parents, Cecil Sr. and Phyllis Hickey Miller, moved the family to Phoenix during his early years. Young Cecil attended Franklin and Kennelworth Elementary Schools but it was at Phoenix Union High School that he really started his community service, becoming the chapter president of the school’s FFA. Seeking more education in his chosen field he headed for Texas A&M but after two years at the college his father decided he should concentrate on Arizona ranching. He returned to the state and enrolled at the University of Arizona and the rest, as they say, is history.  

Cecil Miller, Jr. at the Flagstaff ranch.

In 1962 Cecil was elected to the presidency of the Tolleson Community Farm Bureau and was elected to the Salt River Project Board of Directors at a time when they were looking at alternative sources of water to supply the state.

During the following decade he led an agricultural coalition to help craft Arizona’s 1972 Agricultural Employment Relations Act (AERA) successfully defeating Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ attempt to defeat the bill. Union organizers led by Cesar Chavez and others insisted the bill was designed to keep farm workers from unionizing.

But, in fact, the opposite was true. The dominant feature of the Act permitted agricultural employees to decide for themselves whether they wanted to be represented by a union or not; also giving them the right to choose which union would represent them. Other features of the Act included prohibiting unfair labor practices by both employers and unions, granting an agricultural labor relations board (that is in full operation today) the authority to investigate and prevent unfair labor practices, declaring that the secondary boycott is an unfair labor practice, providing for a 10-day cooling off restraining order in the event of a strike or secondary boycott and imposing upon both the employer and the union the obligation to bargain in good faith.

These were stressful times for Miller Jr. as he was regularly in the “eye of the storm” as Arizona Farm Bureau president. Appearing on KPHO-TV one evening during the controversy he revealed his concerns for what the organization had not done well. Said Miller, “We’ve spent a lot of time visiting among ourselves about this legislation and we have not made clear to the general public what it really is. We keep hearing that this legislation would prohibit farm labor from organizing. The truth is it does just exactly the opposite, but I don’t think we’ve made the general public aware of it.”

And once the Act past, the rancor, and controversy only increased. While Cesar Chavez got on with his “fast of love” his cousin, Manuel Chavez, gathered three- or four-hundred strong in the Yuma area to disrupt the harvest of cantaloupe. With bull horns, shouting and threats, they intimidated some workers into walking out of the fields. The Arizona Farm Bureau News at the time estimated as many as 400 pickets were scattered throughout Yuma Valley traveling in auto convoys with many of the cars bearing California license plates.

Growers called the limited exodus of workers a “walk-off” while the Chavez camp called it a “strike.” Out of an estimated 1,000 to 1,400 workers in the fields, growers estimated perhaps 200 walked out as a result of intimidation and threats.

Finally, Arizona Farm Bureau President Miller called a press conference. In a prepared statement, Miller said, “…the discordant and distorted campaign of outsiders to overturn legislation deemed vital to Arizona is an affront on the free institutions of our state that have made a determination through the free processes of democratic government. We have a Senate and a House …each of which, on a bi-partisan basis and by a margin of better than two to one, voted to enact farm labor legislation after two years of study and analysis. We have a governor who signed this mandate into law. Thus the people of Arizona, through their elected representatives, have spoken. And yet a small group of self-appointed Wise Men from the East have come to us to demean our legislature, call for the recall of the governor, and even urge a boycott of all Arizona products and tourism.

“An announced part of their campaign is to go beyond the destruction of the new farm labor law to outright repeal of Arizona’s long-standing right-to-work statute.”

Miller went on to stress that the new law would not repress but guarantee the rights of farm workers to organize through secret ballot elections that had long been denied them by Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers National Union.

These times were defining moments for Miller and so many others. In the Yuma area, explained the Arizona Farm Bureau News, “The citizens for Agriculture committee went into action. Radio stations punctuated their programs frequently with messages from the Yuma Vegetable Shippers Association, calling for help to pick the melons. The Yuma County Farm Bureau Women and others manned sound trucks carrying American flags. They drove between the pickets and the field workers, playing loud patriotic and Mexican music to drown out the bullhorns and the screaming performances of the pickets. Sheriff’s deputies patrolled the roads to keep order.”

Because the demonstrations by the Chavez picketers had such limited success in the fields they moved to the U.S./Mexico border and tried to intimidate Mexican Nationals with worker permits from crossing over to work.

From observers at the time, Chavez’s picketers hurled threats and innuendoes against “green card” holders coming across to work the melon fields. And while they succeeded in preventing some Mexican Nationals from coming over to harvest melons, those that did make it to the buses were able to work in the fields.

Ultimately, union efforts at stopping the melon harvest in the Yuma area were broken.

The culminating event occurred in 1979 when the Supreme Court overturned a 1978 decision of a three-judge federal panel which had said the Arizona Agricultural Employment Relations Act was unconstitutional. An Ad Hoc group of agriculturalists, formed in 1972, was instrumental in battling the ongoing attack by the United Farm Workers on Arizona’s Farm Labor law. It’s believed without the efforts of the Ad Hoc group Arizona would not have won its farm labor law appeal to the Supreme Court.

Said Miller, Jr. in the June 1979 issue of Arizona Farm Bureau News, “The law guarantees an atmosphere of order and fairness for both farm workers and farm employers. …It’s a state issue, that’s why we intervened on behalf of the State of Arizona and the Arizona legislature. We have a good law which helps farmers and farm workers.”

The busy Life of a Leader

His work at the national level includes speaking and testifying on behalf of the American Farm Bureau, working to expand agricultural trade opportunities, fundraising and advising on legal advocacy and impacting policy on federal lands. He joined the American Farm Bureau Federation in 1975 and remained an active member through 1992, serving as the organization’s vice president from 1980 through 1981. Under the direction of AFBF Presidents Grant, Delano and Kleckner, Cecil served on trade missions to Israel, Switzerland, Russia, Japan, Denmark and France.

Cecil and Alzora with their children Deborah, Cecily, Ellen and Matthew in 1962.

Closer to home, several of Arizona governors had enlisted Cecil to serve on their boards and commissions. He was a member of Governor Jack Williams’ Land Use Study Commission, which looked at unregulated development in rural Arizona and called attention to unscrupulous land developers which resulted in legislative action. He was especially concerned about the domino effect of using the aquifers to supply water for new population centers.

“There’s water there. If they build on the other side of the White Tanks and tap into the Harquahala Aquifer that’s going to kill the conservation area by Wickenburg.”

Governor Bruce Babbitt called on Cecil to be one of two agricultural representatives on the Groundwater Study Commission that developed landmark groundwater regulatory law for Arizona.

Miller on the SRP Board in the 1960s.

Babbitt also chose Cecil to be a part of the Rangeland Advisory Committee which resulted in the governor toning down his attacks on grazing on public lands.

Cecil was named to the State Compensation Fund Board of Directors by Governor Fife Symington. The Board sets the direction for the State Fund of Arizona. Cecil was the leader in 1973 when agriculture was no longer exempt from protecting workers with workers’ compensation. He worked out a program with the State Fund to create a group dividend program that had saved Farm Bureau employers over $20 million in the cost of workers’ compensation insurance. The Farm Bureau’s program became the model for other Arizona business groups.

The Arizona State Legislature’s Navigable Streams Adjudication Commission is another place where Cecil’s expertise had come into play. The Commission determined what streams were navigable when Arizona became a state. The study came about because of an environmental activist’s lawsuit and court ruling that says if a waterway was navigable at statehood it and the embankments belong to Arizona. They do not belong to the property owners who have held title for generations. Cecil’s long family history and relationships throughout the state brought much needed history and perspective to the commission’s deliberations.

He had been a leader in groups and associations that worked to bring water from the Colorado River into Central Arizona, improved trade and commerce with Mexico, spurred economic and job growth in both the rural and urban areas of Arizona and have identified and are training the leaders of tomorrow.

As a livestock and cotton producer, Cecil served as a board member or advisor to local and national agricultural organizations. He was president of: the Maricopa County Farm Bureau for two years; Arizona Farm Bureau for 28 years; Western Agricultural Insurance Company for 20 years; Farm Bureau Service Company of Arizona; Arizona Farm Bureau Marketing Association and Multi States Insurance Development Corporation. He has also served as the vice president of Western Computer Service, Inc. and Western Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company.

Cecil was involved with a California farming operation with daughter Deborah and her husband Ted Sheely, where they worked for the National Aeronautic Space Administration (NASA) monitoring the pesticide and water needs of the 4,000-acre operation using satellite images.

Miller’s work in the agricultural field has garnered him numerous honors and awards including an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Arizona. The U of A College of Agriculture bestowed on him the Lifetime Achievement Award and the Extensionist of the Year and Distinguished Citizen Award.

In 1979 he was honored with the Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award from the Arizona Farm Bureau, and the American Farm Bureau Service Award in 2007 from American Farm Bureau.

Receiving recognition from former American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman, Miller was the 2007 recipient of the Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award from American Farm Bureau Federation. Said Miller, "When you've been around as long as I have been, you've got to learn something along the way."

Progressive Farmer magazine named Cecil Miller their Man of the Year in Service to Agriculture in 1979; and the Future Farmers of America named him Man of the Year in Arizona Agriculture and presented him with their Alumni Award.

If that wasn’t enough, he was named to their Hall of Fame by the Phoenix Elementary School District and is on the Arizona School Boards Association Honor Roll for his service on the school board during his children’s years in school.

This Arizona and California rancher, businessman, and advocate for agriculture, Cecil was also a family man. He and his late wife, Alzora, had four children: Deborah, Cecily, Ellen and Matt.

Cecil Miller, Jr. is missed in our agriculture circles. But his legacy continues and history will record a truly selfless leader.

The following questions were answered by family and we also found excerpts on things Miller said from our Arizona Farm Bureau publications.

The Miller Farm and Ranch legacy: Receiving his B.S. degree in 1949 in animal science and a minor in commercial law from the University of Arizona, Miller Jr. raised cotton, barley, corn, along with other crops and ran cattle in central and northern Arizona.

Eventually, the family partnership grew beyond Arizona to manage more than 10,000 acres of pistachios, cotton and tomatoes in the central valley of California. The California farming operation involved his daughter and son-in-law, Ted and Deborah Sheely, where they did research work with the National Aeronautic Space Administration (NASA) to monitor pesticide, herbicide and water needs of the operation using satellite imaging.

Of farming and ranching, Miller Jr. used to say, “I just love it, love it.”

He can remember a work-filled childhood, but he remembers fun times right along with the farm and ranch work and speaks fondly of summers up north at the summer range ranch headquarters at Rogers Lake just west of Flagstaff. “I was busy as a kid but I had fun, especially our fishing trips,” explained Miller Jr.

The next generation of Miller/Sheely families (from daughter, Deborah): Only son and youngest of four, Matthew, has developed his own pistachio farm in California that daughter, Deborah, and son-in-law, Ted Sheely manage. Ted also runs a 10,000-acre farm that among the pistachios includes cotton, tomatoes, wheat, wine grapes and garlic. All four children, Deborah, Cecily, Ellen and Matthew, have agriculture-related holdings. Everyone attends the American Pistachio Growers annual conference continuing their education on this crop. Deborah’s Brooklyn-based daughter even comes out to the conference. Deborah’s youngest son is on the farm helping manage day-to-day operations and often represents Ted at meetings and informational gatherings.

Deborah, Matthew, Ellen and Cecily together at one of the Pistachio conferences they attend at family.

Deborah’s older son runs U.S. operations for Agworld, an Australian-based software company for agricultural concerns. Though he lives in Sacramento, her son is involved in a myriad of decisions and ideas for the farm. Ted Sheely’s nephew also works with the family as well.

Over the years, Miller’s Community activities and Affiliations included:

  • Agricultural Stabilization & Conservation Service –president/board member
  • Apache County Farm Bureau - president
  • Arizona Academy
  • Arizona Cattle Feeders Association
  • Arizona Cattle Grower’s Association
  • Arizona Farm Bureau – president 28 years
  • Arizona Farm Bureau – vice president 2 years
  • Arizona Farm Bureau Marketing Association – president
  • Arizona State Stream Adjudication Commission – 20 years
  • Arizona-Mexico Trade Commission
  • Arizona Tomorrow
  • Arizonans for Jobs and Energy
  • Center for Rural Leadership
  • Central Arizona Project Association
  • County Extension Advisory Board – member
  • Farm Bureau Service Company of Arizona – president
  • 4-H Youth Foundation
  • Multi States Insurance Development Corporation -- present
  • Maricopa County Farm Bureau -- president two years
  • National Cotton Council
  • Salt River Project Irrigation and Electrical District
  • Valley Leadership
  • Western Agricultural Insurance Company – president/member 20 years
  • Western Computer Service, Inc.—vice president
  • Western Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company. – vice president

Miller’s philosophy about Farm Bureau (Taken from Arizona Farm Bureau News 1967-1982, January 1972 issue, page 8): “Farm Bureau is a great organization. It has great people behind it. Farm Bureau is its members, because it is structured from the grassroots up and it carries a mandate from the locals all the way up through the county, state and national organizations to express the wishes and will of the member’s right back down on the land.

“Farmers are shrinking in numbers, maybe. But on average, individually, they control more land. Land, in spite of our automobiles, our factories, our banks, our cities, is still the basis for our economy. Our politicians know that and so does every other segment of our economy, and they still tread softly when Farm Bureau speaks.

“Our problems are many and they are diverse. But our greatest problem is ourselves – the divisions between ourselves, the conflicts that rise inevitably between inter-dependent branches. If we, between ourselves, can resolve these conflicts and present a solid, united front our enemies will melt before us and we can achieve our aims. Farm Bureau is the way we can do it. It is a general organization that spans the gaps between the vegetable growers, the fruit growers, the grain growers, the dairy interests and the cattlemen. It is the one organization that serves them all – and through which all can work for their common good. Every farmer should belong to an organization that represents his special interests. But he should also belong to Farm Bureau – in the interest of presenting a united front that represents farmers, the land, and the country’s welfare. It’s his chance to have a voice. It’s his best chance.” 

Editor’s Note: The Arizona Farmer and Rancher Hall of Fame is taking candidate nominations for the 2018 year. Nomination forms are available at www.azfare.org.   The completed form and all supporting material must be received at P.O. Box 868, Glendale, AZ 85311 no later than 5 pm on Tuesday, September 1, 2017.

Join our Family!