F arming is difficult, even when there is plenty of water. The historic, long-term drought that has parched Pinal County and cut farmers’ access to water here has made it even tougher.

The drought contingency plan that Arizona agreed to with other Western states calls for reductions in Colorado River water for Arizona farmers. Farmers can drill wells and use groundwater, but drilling is expensive, and the groundwater won’t last forever. Continued urban sprawl and population growth also requires more water. In the last couple of years, some farmers have left acres of dirt where they would normally plant crops. This affects everyone, not just farmers, because agriculture is such a big part of the local economy. Pinal County ranks in the top 2% of all U.S. counties in the total value of agricultural sales, according to a 2018 University of Arizona report. Agriculture is worth more than $1 billion annually to the county’s economy, the report says. One Pinal County farm particularly well positioned to weather the drought is Ak-Chin Farms, which is owned by the Ak-Chin Indian Community. In 1978, the tribe was guaranteed 85,000 acre-feet of water per year in an agreement with the federal government. It was one of a number of water settlements the government has made with Indian communities over the years. Even though Ak-Chin Farms enjoys less uncertainty over water access than the county’s non-Indian farms, there are still plenty of challenges. Just ask Steve Coester, the farm’s manager, who spent some time with Pinal Ways both in his office and driving around the farm in his pickup truck. “All the expenses are increasing, but revenue isn’t increasing proportionately,” he said. “It’s just getting tougher and tougher. Our margin has gone down to very little.” Ak-Chin Farms was established in 1963. Before that, the tribe leased a lot of its land to other farmers. A young Ak-Chin woman named Leona Kakar was employed in nearby Maricopa at the time. “I worked in the local grocery store and I saw the payrolls — I saw how much some of the farmers were earning from the land they leased from us,” Kakar told the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado. Shortly thereafter, Kakar said, the tribe refused to renew the leases and decided to start its own farm. “When we did not renew those leases, we were very unpopular for a while,” she said. For years, Kakar served on the Ak-Chin Farm Board, which oversees the farm manager’s work for the tribe. Over the years, with the help of the water rights settlement, the farm has grown to a bigger portion of the tribe’s land. Today, it’s about 16,000 acres. Part of Coester’s job is monitoring crop prices and evaluating factors that affect markets. Then, he and the Farm Board make decisions about how many acres to devote to each crop. “We sit around and discuss this, and we do it more as a group. When something goes bad,” he said, joking, “it’s my fault.” Cotton, for example, has sold for between 60 and 80 cents a pound for most of the last five years. It was in the same price range for most of the 1980s and 1990s. With inflation, it’s worth much less now than in decades past. “Cotton markets are down,” he said. Other crops are doing better, but market conditions change from month to month and year to year. This year, this tribe has planted or plans to plant 2,800 acres with alfalfa, 980 with potatoes, 1,000 with barley, 3,200 with cotton, 5,000 with corn, 3,000 with sorghum (cattle feed) and 450 with pecans. “Markets change, so our plans change,” Coester said. “We follow the markets more than anything.” The balance of crops over the years hasn’t changed that much, Coester said, although Ak-Chin is growing more corn and sorghum (cow feed). A lot of dairy farms have moved to Pinal County because of urban sprawl in the Phoenix area. Shamrock Farms, for example, moved its herd of 10,000 cows from Maricopa County to Stanfield in 2003. “That’s our main source of income now, growing for the dairies,” Coester said. “Local dairies want more corn.” Staying competitive today requires investments in technology. The rapid increase in technological innovation has allowed farmers to produce a bigger yield of crops per acre and per gallon of water. Ak-Chin Farms uses laser leveling technology. With a laser, a field can be made almost perfectly flat before crops are planted. This saves water (and therefore, money) because it reduces pooling and run-off. “We’ve changed from very unlevel fields to dead-level fields,” Coester said. The farm sends leaves to a lab to be analyzed for nutrient levels. “Then, we’ll make a decision about fertilizer. It’s just like getting a blood sample at a lab,” Coester said. Technology also reduces labor costs, especially important with the rising minimum wage. In January, Arizona’s minimum wage rose from $11 to $12 per hour. In 2017 it was $10. “We are getting more automated, so we need less people. The number of jobs will shrink,” Coester said. Bigger, wider pieces of equipment reduce the number people needed to drive tractors and irrigate. The farm had about 115 employees in 2004, but now 80 or 90, Coester said. “We are going to do anything we can do to eliminate labor,” he said. The farm produces 36 million pounds of potatoes per year. The potatoes are sold to companies such as Frito-Lay and Poore Brothers and turned into potato chips. Machines plant the potatoes. GPS ensures the planting equipment makes no wasted passes through the field. Three years ago, those 36 million pounds of potatoes were grown on 1,200 acres. Now, Coester is trying to do it on 980 acres. Coester pulls up to show a visitor a massive sprinkler, with hills to the west and the towering Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino to the north. He looks at his cellphone. With his phone, he can start, stop or change a sprinkler’s direction and see how much water it’s using. His systems manager can see where every tractor is. “It’s amazing how things have changed over the years,” Coester said. The farm has watered crops using flood irrigation, which is inefficient. The farm is transitioning to sprinkler irrigation and may even move to drip irrigation. With flood irrigation, only 70% of the farm could be irrigated, Coester said. With sprinkler irrigation, it’s 100%. “We’re becoming more and more irrigation efficient,” Coester said. “It changes constantly. Water savings is a big deal.” Water efficiency is important, even for Ak-Chin Farms, because its 85,000 acre-feet of water may not last forever. If the drought continues, that allotment could be reduced. “The only way agriculture is going to survive,” Coester said, “is by being efficient with water.”

F arming is difficult, even when there is plenty of water.

The historic, long-term drought that has parched Pinal County and cut farmers’ access to water here has made it even tougher.

The drought contingency plan that Arizona agreed to with other Western states calls for reductions in Colorado River water for Arizona farmers. Farmers can drill wells and use groundwater, but drilling is expensive, and the groundwater won’t last forever. Continued urban sprawl and population growth also requires more water. In the last couple of years, some farmers have left acres of dirt where they would normally plant crops.

This affects everyone, not just farmers, because agriculture is such a big part of the local economy. Pinal County ranks in the top 2% of all U.S. counties in the total value of agricultural sales, according to a 2018 University of Arizona report. Agriculture is worth more than $1 billion annually to the county’s economy, the report says.

One Pinal County farm particularly well positioned to weather the drought is Ak-Chin Farms, which is owned by the Ak-Chin Indian Community.

In 1978, the tribe was guaranteed 85,000 acre-feet of water per year in an agreement with the federal government. It was one of a number of water settlements the government has made with Indian communities over the years.

Even though Ak-Chin Farms enjoys less uncertainty over water access than the county’s non-Indian farms, there are still plenty of challenges.

Just ask Steve Coester, the farm’s manager, who spent some time with Pinal Ways both in his office and driving around the farm in his pickup truck.

“All the expenses are increasing, but revenue isn’t increasing proportionately,” he said. “It’s just getting tougher and tougher. Our margin has gone down to very little.”

Ak-Chin Farms was established in 1963. Before that, the tribe leased a lot of its land to other farmers. A young Ak-Chin woman named Leona Kakar was employed in nearby Maricopa at the time.

“I worked in the local grocery store and I saw the payrolls — I saw how much some of the farmers were earning from the land they leased from us,” Kakar told the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado.

Shortly thereafter, Kakar said, the tribe refused to renew the leases and decided to start its own farm.

“When we did not renew those leases, we were very unpopular for a while,” she said.

For years, Kakar served on the Ak-Chin Farm Board, which oversees the farm manager’s work for the tribe.

Over the years, with the help of the water rights settlement, the farm has grown to a bigger portion of the tribe’s land. Today, it’s about 16,000 acres.

Part of Coester’s job is monitoring crop prices and evaluating factors that affect markets. Then, he and the Farm Board make decisions about how many acres to devote to each crop.

“We sit around and discuss this, and we do it more as a group. When something goes bad,” he said, joking, “it’s my fault.”

Cotton, for example, has sold for between 60 and 80 cents a pound for most of the last five years. It was in the same price range for most of the 1980s and 1990s. With inflation, it’s worth much less now than in decades past.

“Cotton markets are down,” he said.

Other crops are doing better, but market conditions change from month to month and year to year.

This year, this tribe has planted or plans to plant 2,800 acres with alfalfa, 980 with potatoes, 1,000 with barley, 3,200 with cotton, 5,000 with corn, 3,000 with sorghum (cattle feed) and 450 with pecans.

“Markets change, so our plans change,” Coester said. “We follow the markets more than anything.”

The balance of crops over the years hasn’t changed that much, Coester said, although Ak-Chin is growing more corn and sorghum (cow feed).

A lot of dairy farms have moved to Pinal County because of urban sprawl in the Phoenix area. Shamrock Farms, for example, moved its herd of 10,000 cows from Maricopa County to Stanfield in 2003.

“That’s our main source of income now, growing for the dairies,” Coester said. “Local dairies want more corn.”

Staying competitive today requires investments in technology. The rapid increase in technological innovation has allowed farmers to produce a bigger yield of crops per acre and per gallon of water.

Ak-Chin Farms uses laser leveling technology. With a laser, a field can be made almost perfectly flat before crops are planted. This saves water (and therefore, money) because it reduces pooling and run-off.

“We’ve changed from very unlevel fields to dead-level fields,” Coester said.

The farm sends leaves to a lab to be analyzed for nutrient levels.

“Then, we’ll make a decision about fertilizer. It’s just like getting a blood sample at a lab,” Coester said.

Technology also reduces labor costs, especially important with the rising minimum wage. In January, Arizona’s minimum wage rose from $11 to $12 per hour. In 2017 it was $10.

“We are getting more automated, so we need less people. The number of jobs will shrink,” Coester said.

Bigger, wider pieces of equipment reduce the number people needed to drive tractors and irrigate. The farm had about 115 employees in 2004, but now 80 or 90, Coester said.

“We are going to do anything we can do to eliminate labor,” he said.

The farm produces 36 million pounds of potatoes per year. The potatoes are sold to companies such as Frito-Lay and Poore Brothers and turned into potato chips.

Machines plant the potatoes. GPS ensures the planting equipment makes no wasted passes through the field.

Three years ago, those 36 million pounds of potatoes were grown on 1,200 acres. Now, Coester is trying to do it on 980 acres.

Coester pulls up to show a visitor a massive sprinkler, with hills to the west and the towering Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino to the north. He looks at his cellphone. With his phone, he can start, stop or change a sprinkler’s direction and see how much water it’s using. His systems manager can see where every tractor is.

“It’s amazing how things have changed over the years,” Coester said.

The farm has watered crops using flood irrigation, which is inefficient. The farm is transitioning to sprinkler irrigation and may even move to drip irrigation.

With flood irrigation, only 70% of the farm could be irrigated, Coester said. With sprinkler irrigation, it’s 100%.

“We’re becoming more and more irrigation efficient,” Coester said. “It changes constantly. Water savings is a big deal.”

Water efficiency is important, even for Ak-Chin Farms, because its 85,000 acre-feet of water may not last forever. If the drought continues, that allotment could be reduced.

“The only way agriculture is going to survive,” Coester said, “is by being efficient with water.” | PW

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