By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau: This Arizona agriculture farmer says, “One of the things I really like about farming in Arizona is the potential for diversity and the willingness of progressive farmers to adopt new things.”

Part of an ongoing series.

Tell us about your farm.

We are Jim and Ruth Graham, the owners of Cochise Groves Farming, Inc., a family farm operation in Cochise County which produces pistachios and wine grapes. Our pistachio enterprise, called Cochise Groves, includes 150 acres (about 21,000 trees). Our vineyard consists of 26 acres of red wine grapes (nine different varietals totaling 21,000 vines). We market our pistachios through the Arizona Nut Company in Bowie, Arizona and through our own modest marketing efforts. About three-fourths of our wine grapes are sold to several leading wineries located in the Verde Valley, Elgin-Sonoita, and Willcox areas. We have about one-fourth of our grapes made into our own wine marketed around the state under the Golden Rule Vineyards label. The high desert climate of Cochise County makes our farm (4,350 feet elevation) a particularly good place to produce pistachios and wine grapes. We assumed the management of the pistachios from Ruth's parents in 1998 and have doubled the size of the acreage. The vineyard enterprise was initiated in 2007 and we are one of the leading producers of wine grapes in Arizona.

Ruth and Jim Graham celebrate their success at last November's Festival at the Farm, hosted by the Arizona Wine Growers Association.

What changes have you seen in your lifetime as it relates to farming and/or ranching?

The two most striking changes I have seen in my 42 years of farming are the scale of farming operations and the development of amazing technology. At the time I began farming in 1973 in Iowa a farm of a few hundred acres was normal. Most operations were broadly diversified with crops and livestock. Today farms all across the country need to be multiple times larger and specifically focused to gain the efficiencies of scale. Driving this dramatic expansion has been improvements in technology. Seed genetics, crop protection products, and machinery innovations have benefitted production immensely and have allowed fewer farmers to produce more food and fiber.

Why did you choose to go into agriculture?

When I was growing up on my parent's farm, I thought farming was all about picking up rocks and cleaning hog pens. I was a lot more interested in school and sports, so it was an easy choice for me to go to college when I graduated from high school. I thought I was going to be a major-league baseball player and after figuring out that wasn't going to happen, I began to reassess my life goals. Right about the time I graduated from college the farm economy really picked up. There had been a big grain deal with the Soviet Union and commodity prices headed up. My father was cruising toward retirement, but I convinced him that we should become partners.

Though not everything went as planned, I treasure the 15 years my parent's and I farmed together. I would not have had that experience if I had left the farm. We made a major shift in our lives when the opportunity to move to Arizona to produce pistachios was offered to us by Ruth's mother. Victor and Hazel Nilsen had planted their first orchard in 1981 and when Victor passed away in 1996, Hazel asked us to help her with the management of the orchards. Though it was a difficult decision to leave Iowa, we made the move in 1998. We discovered that the pistachio business can be a roller coaster ride, but fortunately we have hung on through the thrills. Ruth has added a great deal of support to the operation by working both off and on the farm. She is currently the Director of Finance for the City of Willcox. None of our modest accomplishments would have been possible without her efforts.

Will anyone in your family - younger generation - pursue farming and/or ranching?

It would please me if one or both of our sons decided to be part of our operation and eventually take over the reins. However, both of them have occupations of which they are currently making careers. We have made it clear to both of them that the door is open to their involvement without exerting pressure on them.

Would you ever consider growing an emerging crop or changing your farm or ranch model? 

If there is one thing that I have learned in my farming career, it is that if you don't recognize and embrace change, you will be referred to in past tense. Twenty years ago I would never have imagined that I would be involved in producing pistachios or wine grapes. One of the things I really like about farming in Arizona is the potential for diversity and the willingness of progressive farmers to adopt new things.

What are your community activities? Why are you involved?

Most of my community activities have centered on leadership positions in ag-related organizations. My most satisfying experience has been serving on both the Cochise County and Arizona Farm Bureau boards of directors. This experience has been particularly inspiring as I learned how to become a spokesperson for our industry while dealing with our elected officials. I have also served in leadership positions in the Arizona Pistachio Association, the American Pistachio Growers Association, the Arizona Wine Growers Association, the Wilcox Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, and the Willcox Regional Economic Development Alliance. Ruth is a proud member and leader in the Willcox Rotary Club and has served as the Finance Chairman for the Willcox United Methodist Church. She has also served on the Cochise Community Foundation board.

What is one fact/experience/achievement no one knows about you?

In the late 1980s I earned a Master of Agriculture Degree from Iowa State University with emphasis on Ag Economics. During my course work, I became particularly interested in international agriculture. This was a politically tumultuous time in Eastern Europe as the Iron Curtain fell and domination of the eastern bloc countries by the Soviet Union ended. The Iowa State University Ag Department was awarded a contract from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide consulting services for farm and land managers in the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia. Through good fortune and connections, I was invited to be part of the delegation providing these services. I was involved in hosting a group of Czech land managers in a Czech community in Northeast Iowa, and I made two trips to Slovakia to participate in seminars designed to instruct our counterparts in basic free market economics.

What do you think you do really well? Explain.

Well, this is a tough one. I am not sure I do anything really well and there is no doubt that I could do things better than I do. I guess if there is one thing positive that I think others would say about me is that I am optimistically persistent. As with most farming careers I have enjoyed a little success and have suffered through some tough times. There was a time when I worked off of the farm during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s just to keep my farm operation going. I have some physical issues now that limit some of the things I would like to do. But through my entire farming career I have always enjoyed seeing the sun come up in the morning because it means there is a new adventure coming my way.

Why are you a farm bureau member?

I joined Farm Bureau when I began farming in Iowa back in 1973. Admittedly joining was primarily to buy insurance and I didn't take a very active part in the real benefits of the organization. When Ruth and I moved to Arizona I became more interested in participating because we recognized how important being part of the “voice for agriculture” was in a state where agriculture is too often viewed as insignificant. Having the opportunity to educate the public through Farm Bureau activities has been very satisfying to us.

How will the next generation of farmers have to operate?

The demands on the next generation of farmers will be greater than ever. Just working hard will not be enough. New farmers will need to be well educated, innovative, and politically active. The biggest obstacle I see young farmers and ranchers facing is having the opportunity to farm or ranch. The amount of capital assets a young farmer or rancher needs to command to have an economically viable operation is incredible. Without family connections to rely upon, it will become increasingly more difficult to enter into farming and ranching operations.

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