Meet Arizona Agriculture's Murphree Family
By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau
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 acreage too. Additionally, while running our own place I worked for the University of Arizona’s Maricopa Agricultural Center or “Big MAC” as manager for their demonstration farm. On both places we grew cotton, alfalfa and grains in addition to some specialty crops. Over the years we’ve grown just about everything you can imagine that grows in our Arizona climate. While with the university, we always experimented with alternative crops, as I believe they do today. 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 atlantica rootstock at the time, getting our seeds from California. We sold quite a few trees throughout Arizona and some into New Mexico. We’ve calculated that a couple hundred acres are probably in existence today from the rootstock we grew in our seedling nursery and sold to pistachio farmers in Arizona and New Mexico
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 resistance for example, you don’t have to cultivate as many times to try and manage weeds. Depending on the situation, one trip in a field could cost $5 to $6 dollars an acre. It’s most likely much more expensive per acre today since when I farmed through 2004. Reducing tillage trips has been one of the most cost-effective changes in crop production that I’ve observed in my lifetime.
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 him farmed. I always wanted to farm. I love living out too; we never lived in town with the exception of two brief times. There have always been challenges in agriculture but you weigh the benefits and challenges. You have to consider the risks. But opportunity exists in agriculture otherwise we wouldn’t do it.
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 is a pilot teaching 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.
But Pennee’s community and volunteer outreach is the thing to talk about. While I was farming, Pennee has spent the last 45 years promoting the cotton and agriculture industry in general. If you factor in everything she’s done on the local, state and national level, her promotion efforts have reached thousands of consumers, aided in helping the public understand the cotton industry and agriculture in general and made agriculture an interesting, historical and entertaining topic for all interested parties.
She began cotton promotion with her activities in Farm Bureau and especially the Casa Grande Valley Cotton Women (CGVCW). During her presidency in 1993 she expanded some of the community outreach areas that culminated when she became Western Regional Director for the National Cotton Council’s Cotton Women’s Committee. During that time Pennee went all over the country conducting seminars, fashion shows, helping host special events and much more. She’s been active with the National Cotton Council since the 1980s. She could tell you more about the cotton industry across the country more than me at the time because of her involvement with the National Cotton Council.
To me, a highlight of Pennee’s agriculture promotional efforts was authoring a children’s book about cotton called The Adventures of 100% Happy Shirt. Written in 1995, Pennee and educators have been using this book to teach children about modern cotton production in the USA. To date, she’s distributed more than 10,000 copies (quantity of the original printing which is now completely distributed) of The Adventures of 100% Happy Shirt mainly donating them to classrooms or only charging the cost of printing. State Ag in the Classroom programs throughout the country have purchased the books for their use. One state, Alabama, annually purchased 100 books to use in their Ag Literacy program. Her book can also be found in Arizona Farm Bureau’s Book Barns that contain 20 to 25 agriculture books loaned out to classrooms throughout the state. Having attended the national Ag in the Classroom conference several times, she’s been asked to present on cotton production and helped teachers develop ways to most effectively use the book including suggestions on how to develop lessons.
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.
Pennee’s latest efforts to promote cotton tie in with the history of our Nation. Being a genealogy enthusiast, Pennee discovered some distant family ties to President’s Wives. While researching, she discovered a collection of cotton dresses were about to be donated to a drama club. The First Lady collection of cotton dresses made in 1976 for Casa Grande, Phoenix and Yuma Cotton Wives caught Pennee’s attention. After receiving permission to use the collection she developed an educational “Caretakers of Our History” program she presented to different organizations. 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. Finally, Pennee previously served on the Alumni Council of Arizona’s Project CENTRL and is a member of this rural leadership program’s class 5. 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’m on the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame selection committee, which is an honor to serve on since we get to select some of the state’s most amazing pilots and give recognition at an annual banquet. I mentioned earlier about working with U of A’s project leaders on the various experiments “Big MAC” conducts. When I was manager, I used to fly the project leaders all over Arizona so they could take pictures of their projects in various locations. My plane came in handy when I was at the U. of A. We always used to say that flying gave us a different perspective of what the crops look like. We must have been ahead of the curve on this because now they’re using unmanned aerial flights, or drones, to check crops, map fields and do more and more of the precision agriculture.
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. Good friend of mine, Dave Taylor, and I ran around together. We got involved in flying pretty early on. We were always building model planes so we were really focused on 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 son, Curt, how to do aerobatics. We were one of the only father and son teams in the Phoenix Aerobatic Club. We’d compete against each other. He used to beat me all the time.
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 Arizona we’re constantly wanting to improve our water use in farming. This devise let a farmer know exactly what his water use was and then determine how to make adjustments.
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. 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 brought an old refrigerator out and while our accuracy is not that good, we eventually hit it and it sent the bowling ball completely through the refrigerator with the ball still rolling another 600 to 700 yards. Our dry lake bed we use for practice shots is 1,350 yards and set at a 45 degree angle (the cannon) we can shoot the balls about 1,000 to 1,200 yards. If we do a 35 degree angle we can shoot out about 1,500. Translated, that’s about three-quarters of a mile.
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 field; but Farm Bureau grassroots advocacy is much broader base.
How will the next generation of farmers have to operate? I've always talked about efficiencies. 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.