By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau: I love that I grew up on a farm. And, I love that I had a dad that loved farming. Pat Murphree, the unassuming, quiet retired farmer that he is, would not spend his time talking about himself. He’d tell you about the achievements of others. Instead, he’d rattle off his own list of heroes. No, he wouldn’t mention that he’s an accomplished pilot, a state aerobatic champion and the inventor of a patented weir that measures water flow. But on one quiet Sunday morning, I caught him off guard and he told me his, and mom’s, story. And, yes, I had to keep him on topic about his life as a farmer in Arizona since he would have rather told about other’s achievements. But that’s a farmer for you.
Part of an ongoing series about Arizona’s farmers and ranchers.
Talk about your farm: Our main farm was in Maricopa - one section - along with leasing a lot of
We even tried Pistachios, specifically on the Neely place in Maricopa. Southeast Arizona has had the greatest success with Pistachios and they’re still growing there today. In the 1970s, we had a Pistachio seedling nursery. We grew the Pistacia
Pat checking his Pistachio seedlings in the nursery he started sometime in the 1970s. Orchards throughout southern Arizona are from seedlings he started back then.
We’d bud the rootstock with the Peters pollinator and the Kerman variety dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are born on different trees. We had one male, or pollinator, tree to anywhere from 12 to 16 female trees. Depending on the prevailing wind, we’d put the pollinator tree on the west side.
During any given farming year we might be farming as many as 3,200 acres between the U. of A. demonstration farms and our own farm, along with leasing additional acres.
All the crops I’ve farmed have been extremely interesting to grow. Cotton, of course, was my main crop. Based on soil types and what you planted, it was an interesting opportunity to test your efforts to grow a quality crop while managing your costs for maximum production and ROI. I always believed in rotating crops and maintaining a clean and well-manicured farm to control weeds, never letting them seed to further spread these invasive plants.
Pat standing in the last cotton crop he grew: 2004.
What I liked most was getting out and digging in the soil and determining what was needed. I believe in a strongly managed fertilizer and weed management program.
Regarding seed varieties, we also partnered with Stoneville (now a Bayer CropScience variety) and DeltaPine (now a Monsanto seed variety) on some of the new cotton varieties they’ve come up with over the years.
When working with the University, a lot of the project leaders would work with us including hosting their experiments on our family farm. They used to call our place U. of A. South.
What changes have you seen in your lifetime? Today’s farmers are moving away from conducting too many trips down the field to reduce costs; no-till or low-till environments. On cotton, we used to cultivate five to six times during a season and by using biotech crops, Round-up
The advanced seed development in agriculture thanks to biotechnology represents some of the most amazing advances for any of us to observe in our lifetimes.
Costs to farm continue to go up. I used to pay $120 a ton for UN32 (fertilizer). Now, our farmers pay $500 a ton. Fuel costs for me at the time were just under a dollar a gallon for tractor diesel, now it’s anywhere from $3.50 a gallon and more.
Why did you choose to go into agriculture? I was born and raised on a farm. My dad farmed, his dad before
Will anyone in your family, the younger generation, pursue farming or ranching? None of my four kids have pursued production agriculture. Two of them, Julie and Brent, do have careers in the industry. Julie with Arizona Farm Bureau and Brent on the Cotton Board. Patrick has a tie to it because he’s in commercial landscaping. I tried to teach my kids to have a variety of skills that would fit in more than one industry.
My youngest, Curt, is in the mortgage business and as a pilot teaches flying on the side. So I’m glad to see the mix of industries they’re in.
Two of the grandkids might end up in the agriculture industry. Grandson, Kyle, will be going to U. of A. to obtain a degree in sustainable plant systems to possibly become a crop advisor; and a granddaughter, Annie, keeps saying she wants to be a veterinarian.
While no longer in agriculture, if you were would you ever consider growing an emerging crop or changing your farm or ranch model? I did this all the time by investigating other crops. And, while working for U. of A.’s “Big MAC” I had a bird’s eye view of the latest ag-related innovations and crops to consider growing in our desert climate.
I remember when Pistachios was a big topic in agriculture. I took several trips to California to learn more. I was always looking for something different. I think we always have to be uncovering other opportunities in agriculture including better ways to do something simply because our costs to farm and ranch keep going up. If a better way exists, we need to discover it and then apply it.
What are your community activities? Why were you involved? Community-wise in Maricopa we were involved in quite a few things including 4-H and FFA and also our local community church. Maricopa’s community event was Stagecoach Days, a time when everyone kind of pitched in and did different things.
She began cotton promotion with her activities in Farm Bureau and especially the Casa Grande Valley Cotton Women (CGVCW). During her presidency in
To me, a highlight of
Pennee would say, “If you don’t show up to tell your own story, someone else will and they’ll never tell your story as well as you do.”
Pennee did all this while raising our four kids on the farm. Plus, she was a member of the Quadrille de Mujeres, a women’s equestrian drill team which performed in numerous rodeos across the southwest. I enjoyed her stint with the Quadrille team as we hung around with all the farm and ranch families that were involved – the Hartmans, Haughts, Pratts and so many other families.
Pennee Murphree with the Quadrille de Mujeres.
Since beginning the “Caretakers of Our History” program, Pennee estimates that at least 1,000 women have seen or been involved in the different presentations. Additionally, after the first few, other First Ladies have been added to the group, new outfits have been sewn and young girls have been brought into the program modeling period American Girl costumes.
To date, the program has been presented to church groups, civic groups, schools and the Arizona Farm Bureau’s summer Leadership Conference.
Since Pennee and I have retired, she still does her genealogy and I have gotten more involved in aviation-related activities including still flying my plane.
I mentioned earlier about working with U of A’s project leaders on the various experiments “Big MAC” conducts. When I was
Seen here with his plane, Pat and other flying farmers saw the value of an aerial view of farming even before today's modern-day drones.
My plane has even been used to locate stolen vehicles.
I also have a number of welding projects. Just last year I welded a staircase up to the rooftop of our Santa Fe-style house. So for us, retirement is not a time for us to be hanging around with nothing to do.
What is one fact/experience/achievement no one knows about you? In 1975 I was Arizona’s Intermediate state champion. I’ve always loved aerobatic aviation.
An earlier inductee into the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame, Cliff Sterrenberg taught me aerobatics. Regular flying can be kind of boring. Aerobatics is like a disease, you can’t get rid of it. If you’re up coming back from a long trip you’ve got all that altitude, it’s a shame to waste it so you might as well be doing aerobatics on the way down. Cliff also taught
Flying and farming have always gone with together for Pat.
In another example, most would not know I developed the portable weir that I received a U.S. patent on. In the 1970s (seems like I got a lot of things done in the ‘70s) I developed a portable weir device to measure water use in the ditch. The technology is straightforward and easy to use and since then more sophisticated and exact measuring systems have come into play. But in
What do you think you do really well? I don’t know. I like to say I’m a Jack-of-all-trades and a master-of-none. When I retired from farming I had a lot of tools for welding. I do a lot of welding in retirement; everything from welding tables and BBQs. Flying-wise I’m pretty active in the area with others in aviation. I’ve also made a bowling ball cannons.
The kids suggest I’m gifted with my hands but I just like to build things.
Making the bowling ball cannons were some of the most fun things to make. Along with others, we’ll go out to a dry lake bed and shoot for distance and also for accuracy. It’s amazing what 8-ounces of black powder and a 16-pound bowling ball can do. The cannons can shoot the bowling ball completely out of sight at times. One time we
The two Bowling ball cannons Pat built.
Why are you a Farm Bureau members? I haven’t figured that out yet (laughing). No, it keeps us in touch with what’s going on. We’ve always been Farm Bureau members. When in farming we were also always Arizona Cotton Grower members. We’ve seen the value of membership in both of these organizations. It’s good to be commodity-specific to keep updated on changes in your ag
How will the next generation of farmers have to operate? I’ve always talked about efficiencies. And that’s what it’s going to come down to more and more. They’re always coming up with new and different varieties in crop production.
Today, they map the soil. I think they’ll eventually be able to map a field structure to determine types of insects in one field and program into the applicators for various pest management requirements.
Since costs seem to keep rising, the only thing that can help us stay prosperous in agriculture is to continue building efficiencies into how we farm.
My philosophy is that it’s amazing what you can do with what you have and even what you don’t have.