Facing Low Prices And Urbanization, West Valley Cotton Farmers Turn To Other Crops

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Thursday, December 17, 2015 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, December 17, 2015 - 4:31pm
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(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Farmer Brandon Brooks holds some of the cotton he's harvesting. He says the conditions have been great for picking because there hasn't been too much rain or cold snaps.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
A sign in the office of Rick Lavis, head of lobby group Arizona Cotton Growers Association.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Brandon Brooks stands in front of a cotton picker and packer in Goodyear, Ariz.
(Data and graphic courtesy of George Frisvold, University of Arizona)
Harvested Cotton and Alfalfa Acreage in Arizona

Cotton growing in Arizona first boomed in World War I when the country needed industrial materials, like Goodyear tires for planes. Once the war ended, the boom ended, but cotton remained a staple of the state’s agricultural industry. Now, with cotton prices hitting a low point, farmers are turning to another, more profitable crop: alfalfa.

Farmer Brandon Brooks climbs up into an idle cotton harvester in a field off Interstate 10 in Goodyear.

"Every once in awhile, the boss has to get in the picker and see what we got out there because this is almost a bird’s eye view, as you can tell," Brooks said looking over the rows of cotton in front of him.

Brooks is a young farmer continuing his family’s century-old tradition of growing cotton in the West Valley.

But if cotton prices stay low, Brooks may have to turn to a different crop to stay profitable. Right now the most valuable part of cotton isn’t even the fiber.

"The silver lining in cotton right now is the seed," he said. "Nationwide they’ve really reduced acres and the seed manufacturers still need a product to sell to the few growers that there are."

White blocks of harvested cotton sit on the side of the road, ready for the gin. 

Brooks takes his cotton to a local gin, which is run by other Arizona farmers as a kind of co-op.

At that gin, Ron Rayner, a local farmer, shows how the cotton is processed, leaving the seeds in huge piles outside.

"It’s an extra benefit," Rayner said about the seed. "The value of that seed basically pays for the harvest and the ginning of the cotton, so it contributes substantially to the crop."

Cotton Prices Are Low Because Of Global Supply

Rick Lavis, executive vice president for lobbyist group Arizona Cotton Growers’ Association, said the state's cotton is very high quality.

But he doesn’t see a bright future for the crop in Arizona.

"A continued decline in cotton acreage, continued low prices," Lavis said. "So it’s not looking like a very bountiful process."

Twenty years ago, Arizona had more than 400,000 acres of cotton. This year, there were less than 100,000 acres.

According to a Department of Agriculture report, forecasted cotton production across the entire nation is down 22 percent from just last year, mainly because China controls the cotton market supply, bringing down prices.

Drought in California and wet conditions in the southeastern states also drove crop numbers down.

Some farmers are reacting to the market by growing anything but cotton, said University of Arizona agriculture economist George Frisvold.

"Arizona has shifted in terms of what’s being produced compared to 30, 40 years ago," Frisvold said. "We’re producing more veggies, more melons, more specialty crops, those crops don’t require much acreage."

Phoenix’s population has grown, especially into the suburbs to the west. That expansion creates competition with agriculture acreage in what used to be the rural West Valley.

Farmers like Brooks are running into problems sharing the space.

"The biggest challenge farming in the city like we do is is staying safe and keeping people safe on the road," Brooks said. "Accidents happen inevitably and even when they aren’t our fault, litigation is almost guaranteed to follow."

Local development continues to encroach on his acres, meaning he can't put in concrete water ditches. Using dirt ditches means more water runoff, which means Brooks loses money.

Brooks leases the 35-acre field in Goodyear, and he’s worried next year the owner will sell it for property development.

Cotton No Longer King In West Valley

As cotton acres have gone down, acres of alfalfa in Arizona have gone up from around 150,000 in 1995 to 260,000 this year.

Frisvold said this increase isn’t just higher prices for alfalfa: it’s also the population boom.  

"Dairy production is relatively local," Frisvold said. "So what goes on is that when you have more people, you have more cows. More cows means more feed for the cows."

Brooks said that demand for alfalfa drove him away from cotton.

"You know we planted more alfalfa and less cotton this year than we ever have because of those same economic factors," Brooks said. 

This year, by hedging his cotton at a set price, Brooks expects to come in with a profit. Next year, though, things aren’t so certain.

"Now next year we’re open and it’s the first time since I’ve been farming on my own that we’re going into a new season without anything hedged," Brooks said. "So next year’s a little bit unique and nerve-wracking."

Another threat Brooks and other Arizona farmers face is getting water supply for their fields.

Both cotton and alfalfa are water-intensive crops, and critics question the use of dwindling water resources for a crop that is mostly exported.

Add that to low prices and urbanization and, while Brooks remains optimistic, cotton may no longer be king in Arizona.

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