“Why in God’s Name Are We Growing Cotton in the Desert?”

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau Communication Director: A New York reporter’s recent tweet posed a question about growing cotton in the desert after seeing a USDA-NASS statistics on Arizona cotton. Since she likely knows little about agriculture and certainly cotton’s economic contribution to our state, let me give her an overview.

For a quick, concise answer, the reason we grow cotton in the desert is because we do it so well. In fact, Arizona and California are known for growing the highest-quality cotton around.

First, let’s do a review of the high-end and low-end of cotton production in Arizona for perspective on our commercial cotton production over the years. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Services (USDA-NASS) production records, peak upland cotton acreage in Arizona was 653,100 planted acres in 1953; add the 41,900 acres of American Pima (longer fiber cotton) acres that year and the total for all cotton acreage was 695,000 acres. To compare, last year’s (2015) upland cotton acreage was 89,000, the lowest acreage ever recorded since estimates began in 1924. There were 90,000 acres of upland cotton planted in 1927.

With nearly 700,000 planted cotton acres in Arizona in the 1950s, it’s been decades since we have had that much in the ground. Granted, to the uninformed whether it’s 700,000 or 7,000 acres, vast fields of cotton in the Arizona desert can seem out of place among our famous saguaros, until you understand the Arizona cotton story.

“We’ve been farming cotton commercially in Arizona since 1917,” says Rick Lavis, executive vice president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association. “Regardless of what one thinks we should be doing, mainly because of Arizona’s weather we can create this kind of high-quality product out here because we manage our resources so well. And as a result, our cotton yields are consistently twice the national average.”

To Lavis’ point, key facts about our Arizona cotton cannot be ignored.

  1. California and Arizona grow the highest-quality, highest-yield cotton in the world thanks mostly to our climate and managed and efficient irrigation.
  2. Cotton has been king in terms of cash receipts for cotton farmers over the decades.
  3. In the West our technology advances in managed irrigation and cotton seed varieties mean we’ve reduced water use per acre for growing cotton by more than 50%; in some cases as much as 60%.
  4. Arizona cotton annually brings approximately $400 to $500 million to our state’s economy.
  5. Finally, we grow it because we can.

The Historical and Economic Narrative about Arizona Cotton 

Let me share the historical and economic narrative of cotton in the west, certainly here in Arizona. 

Native Americans Grew Cotton in the Desert First: Did you know that Native Americans were the first to grow cotton here in the west? This “did you know” fact is one of my favorite cotton truths since it highlights the wisdom of this people group, specifically the Hohokam, in growing this crop thousands of year ago in our warm, dry climate. I can imagine even back then they recognized the quality of the crop they were growing.

Specifically, cotton has been grown in the desert for more than 3,000 years. Plus, some of our modern-day tribes are still growing this amazing crop.

Certainly, seed development over the generations has improved the plant, especially these last handful of decades. The Hohokam built entire canal systems in central Arizona to water their crops. So, cotton has a very long long history in the West.

Arizona Cotton Helped the War Effort: The town of Goodyear in Arizona exists today because of cotton. Goodyear was part of the 16,000 acres purchased in 1917 for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company by junior executive Paul Litchfield. Cotton was used to help make rubber tires for airplanes during World War I; the cultivated cotton went into the tire threads.

The basis for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company’s decision to purchase land in Arizona was the obvious benefits of Arizona's climate and soil. So again, we discover another reason why cotton became such an obvious crop in our desert state.

Arizona’s Seed Cotton Feeds Us and Provides Quality Seed around the Globe. While prices are in the tank because of the global oversupply of cotton, cotton seed production can be viable for the crop production portfolio a farmer has budgeted for and in the west our seed quality is top notch. The seed is used to feed dairy and feedlot cattle. And, we consume dairy products and beef. So, cotton feeds us!

Plus, a significant percentage of the cotton seed we produce in Arizona actually goes into production for next year’s cotton season, what is known as “production seed.”  We’re part of the future production of cotton, again, because we produce such a high-quality product. Seed companies love what we can produce for them in the desert southwest since they can count on seed grown in Arizona to be consistent because our weather isn’t prone to hurricanes and tornadoes. Additionally, we have a very long growing season, all factors for creating an optimal place to grow seed that’s sold all over the world.

Arizona Cotton and other Agriculture Built our Infrastructure: While someone can fairly question why we grow crops in the desert, if you study our state’s history, you’ll discover that the modern water infrastructure Arizona families and industry now enjoys was a direct result of farmers and ranchers building the infrastructure.

"If it wasn't for agriculture none of us would be here," says Pinal County cotton, wheat and alfalfa farmer Paco Ollerton and this year's President of the Arizona Cotton Grower's Association. "The early farmers settling Arizona developed the current reservoir and distribution system residential and industrial customers use today." 

Arizona was the Epicenter of the Development of a Stronger and Longer Cotton Fiber: As a result, we shouldn’t be surprised that the southwest is still growing high-quality cotton. According to Supima, a promotional organization of American Pima cotton growers, a longer fiber cotton (grown in Arizona and California) means quality and strength; characteristics Americans and global buyers expect from this renewable fiber.

To explain a bit of history about extra-long staple (ELS) cotton, The Southwest United States has grown ELS cotton since the early-1900s, according to Supima. A breeding breakthrough came in 1951 when a seed was developed and introduced that produced an ELS cotton with superior fiber properties, luster and silkiness while at the same time providing an unusually high yield. Subsequent years produced further improved varieties of this longer cotton fiber. The name "Pima" was applied to ELS cotton (previously called American-Egyptian) because of its development in the U.S. desert southwest in the early 1900s. The name was given in honor of the Pima Indians who were helping to raise the ELS cotton on the USDA experimental farm in Sacaton, Arizona. Dr. Carl V. Feaster, a longtime Pima breeder and geneticist is known around the world as the father of modern-day Pima cottons. It was in Arizona where his world-renowned cotton-breeding work was conducted.

Cotton is a net positive boost to Arizona’s Economy: While the numbers vary, even with only one sixth of the acres we produced in the 1950s and 1960s, Arizona cotton continues to bring millions and millions into our Arizona economy. All of Arizona’s cotton is exported. Agriculture products we ship out means greenbacks are coming back in to our state.

With the smaller acres, efficient use of water and improved seed varieties cotton has a place in Arizona’s arid climate. What has driven those acres down is the price of a pound of cotton on the market? For agricultural commodity farmers, we’re price takers not price makers. Despite all this, you’ll find some of the most beautiful and high-quality cotton around right here in the desert.

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