A Cotton Tale

Keridwen CorneliusDecember 1, 2017
Share This

In June 2015, businesspeople, conservationists and reporters gathered at Tempe Mission Palms Hotel and glanced worryingly at their water glasses. Lake Mead, which supplies water to 25 million people across Arizona, California and Nevada, had just sunk to a record low: 37 percent full. A bathtub ring the color of bleached bones striped its brown cliffs, revealing the ghost of water levels past.

For Arizonans, the lake is a giant hourglass measuring our main water supply. And it was 6 inches away from 1,075 feet – the trigger point for cutbacks.

Governor Doug Ducey assured attendees at the luncheon – titled “Keeping Water Flowing” – that we were not in a crisis. Arizona had been intelligently managing our water and banking it in underground facilities for years. Compared with profligate California, our state is as frugal as a Depression-era grandma.

Others felt there were leaks in the management plan. The biggest one, they said, was agriculture, which uses 70 percent of Arizona’s water. One environmentalist suggested farmers stop growing “water-hungry and inefficient” crops like alfalfa and cotton. Ducey nipped that proposal in the bud: “Cotton is one of the Five Cs. It’s going to continue to be one of the Five Cs.”

But the suggestion seeded several questions. Could we shut off cotton and alfalfa production like we shut off a tap? In a word: No. Together, the crops contribute up to $584 million annually to Arizona’s estimated $270 billion economy. Moreover, cotton seed and alfalfa hay literally feed the state’s $1.7 billion cattle industry. Many cotton farmers are carrying on a family tradition that stretches back to Arizona’s statehood-era cotton boom. Their farms’ equipment, ecology and economics are calibrated to include cotton in their crop rotation.

Could farmers use less water or transition to other crops? Yes, and they are. But with population explosions and predicted mega-droughts exponentially threatening our rivers, we must ramp up our collective efforts. How can Arizonans work together to benefit both people and the land? Many of the answers are threaded through the issue of cotton.

Agricultural journalists visiting Goodyear Farms had the first opportunity to see International Harvester Company’s new cotton picker in operation, circa 1940s. Historical photos provided by Arizona Historical SocietyThe story of Arizona’s cotton boom begins in Egypt – two Egypts, in fact. In the 1860s, farmers in the Nile Delta got wind that the world’s top cotton producer, the American South, was in trouble. The North had blockaded Confederate trading ships from sailing to Europe. So Egypt stepped up production of its stronger “long-staple” cotton and cornered the international market.

Decades later, World War I exploded like a spark in an industrial cotton gin. Sea battles and a British embargo strangled Egypt’s exports. The war was desperate for cotton, a prime component in airplane wing covers and tires. Where, suppliers asked, could they find an Egypt-esque landscape with the nine-month growing season necessary for long-staple cotton? Arizona raised its collective hand. Scientists and Pima Indians south of Phoenix had been hybridizing long-staple species. And they’d just released a sturdy variety called Pima cotton. Boom.

In 1916, Goodyear Rubber & Tire Co. – which manufactured tires for the war – leased 24,000 acres in the West Valley for Pima cotton farming. The following year, Goodyear junior executive Paul Litchfield purchased 16,000 acres for homes and farmland. They called this new community Egypt. You know it today as Goodyear.    

During the war, “white gold” bloomed on more than 800,000 acres throughout Arizona. Then peacetime busted the industry. The pattern repeated with WWII. In the decades that followed, producers began marketing Pima cotton as a luxury ingredient in sheets and shirts. By the 1980s, production of both Pima and short-staple cotton had rebounded to 600,000 acres.

Then disaster hit: rock-bottom cotton prices and plagues of biblical proportions. Boll weevils – which historians say crippled the South’s economy almost as much as the Civil War – crept into Arizona. They joined forces with pink bollworms, moth larvae that feast inside cotton bolls, to decimate the Arizona cotton industry.

“The 1990s [were] horrific,” says Ron Rayner, a third-generation farmer whose family settled in the West Valley in 1913. “It was just about to put us out of business.” Every night when the moths emerged, Rayner recalls, the area filled with crop dusters spewing noxious poisons. Unfortunately, the insecticide wiped out not only moths but friendly predators like wasps, inviting sticky clouds of whiteflies to storm in and ravage cotton through a combo of viruses, molds and death by a thousand bites. Arizona farmers faced full-scale swarmageddon.

RUBBER MEN: Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. officials, including board chairman Paul Litchfield (far left) watch the 350,000,000th tire taken from the vulcanizer in the company tire room, 1943.The deus ex machina that saved the day was a gene in the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Inserted into cotton DNA, Bt spells death for bollworms. The genetically modified seed became available in the mid-’90s. It was followed by a bollworm eradication program involving sterilized moths. By 2009, the pink bollworm had practically disappeared. Insecticide use among Arizona cotton growers plummeted by 88 percent, helping save the environment, people’s health and $200 million.

“Before Bt cotton we were probably spraying eight to 12 times a year just for pink bollworm, and then you had whiteflies and other issues,” says Scottsdale farmer Adam Hatley. “This year we haven’t sprayed for pests at all. So, for pests, you’ve gone from 14 sprays to zero.”

Unfortunately, pesticide use wasn’t the only thing drying up. The rainy, snowy ’90s were followed by drought – one that seemingly stretches to the horizon to this day.

Cotton loaded onto truck, 1950Several miles south of Maricopa, a slim canal slips through a vast plain of fields and dust. Farmer Dan Thelander depends on this precious moisture like a cowboy depends on his canteen. He uses it to irrigate 4,500 acres of cotton, alfalfa and wheat. Two-thirds of the water comes from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 336-mile canal that diverts Colorado River water to Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties. The CAP supplies 40 percent of Arizona’s water. Its largest storage reservoir is Lake Mead at the Arizona-Nevada border.

Since reaching near-maximum capacity in 2000, Mead has lost almost 1 million acre-feet per year, on average. To picture one acre-foot, imagine an area roughly the size of a football field drenched in water one foot deep. Now imagine 1 million football fields, and you get a feel for the problem.

“Water is a very big concern for us,” Thelander says. “Long term, if we lose CAP water, then we will be farming a lot less acreage. I don’t see another supply of water on the horizon.”

If Mead falls below 1,075 feet – which happened briefly in 2015 and again in 2016 before heavy snowfall last winter in the Rocky Mountains helped it recover – it could trigger federal water cutbacks. As of this writing, the lake sits at 1,082 feet.

Because Arizona has junior water rights on the Colorado River, cutbacks would hit our state first. And farmers would be the first to feel the sting of rationing. “It’s kind of like the way the English used to fight battles,” Thelander says. “They had the big lineup of the all the redcoats. The farmers are in that front line, and we’re going to get the first bullets.”

cotton gin at Goodyear, 1920To be sure, drought conditions make cotton – one of the world’s most water-intensive crops – something of a hot-button issue. You’ve seen the scary memes splashed around the Internet, e.g. the disputed claim that it takes 400 gallons of water to grow cotton for one T-shirt and 1,800 gallons for a pair of jeans.

Cotton is divisive in Arizona, too, despite its diminished stature in the state. Due to its stagnant value on the open market, the crop never fully recovered in Arizona after the boll weevil disaster of the 1990s. In 2017, Arizona planted just 175,000 acres of cotton, ranking us 13th nationally. Texas, the biggest grower, had 6.9 million acres.  

However, it should be noted that Arizona cotton farmers are remarkably productive compared to their peers. Because Arizona has dry heat and a water management system that allows farmers to irrigate, we produce two to three times more cotton per acre than Texas and other states that rely on rainfall. That also means we produce a higher quality cotton than most states. Almost all of Arizona’s cotton gets shipped from L.A. to East Asia, where it’s transformed into majority-cotton clothing and high-thread-count sheets.

Arizona cotton consumes more water than average, but farming innovations have closed the gap. Like most Arizona farmers, Thelander levels his fields to increase flood irrigation efficiency. He also invested in 1,100 acres of subsurface drip irrigation – a technique pioneered in Arizona that uses about half as much water as flood irrigation. Thanks to technologies like these, along with desert-tolerant seeds, many Arizona cotton farmers have reduced their annual water use from 8 acre-feet per acre to 4. That’s impressive. But it’s still high compared to the 1 to 3 acre-feet it takes to grow cotton in California and Texas, where higher humidity and rainfall helps offset water use.

Thelander wants to install more drip, but at $2,500 an acre, it’s a risky investment, especially with potential water shortages looming. (One organization helps farmers bear this cost, as we’ll see.) Ideally, he’d like to start transitioning to a low-water-use, high-value crop. He hopes a market will soon develop for guayule, a Southwestern source of rubber and latex. Meanwhile, he’s foraying into a water-saving riff on crop rotation. He calls it the Rayner Method, after its founding father.    

Across town in Goodyear, Ron Rayner wades waist deep into his clover-green cotton field, his feet crunching over straw and sinking into mud. “The thing that still amazes me is to walk out in a cotton field and see it producing in a way that we never anticipated,” he enthuses. “Every time I look at it, I think, ‘That’s crazy.’”

Rayner’s crops follow a six-year cycle that resembles the rhyme scheme of a Keats poem: A B A B C D. Or, in this case: cotton, wheat, cotton, wheat, sorghum, alfalfa. The key lies in double-cropping cotton and wheat. For most farmers, the wheat season is around December to June, while cotton is roughly March to November. They plant cotton and wheat in separate fields, which dry up for part of the year.

Ron Rayner and a worker examine a  cotton gin in GoodyearBut Rayner shortens both of their seasons and plants one after the other in the same fields. He uses flood irrigation, but frames his fields with 60-foot borders that help spread water quickly and efficiently. He harvests wheat in May, shreds the straw and leaves it on the field. Then he immediately plants cotton amidst the wheat stubble. He doesn’t till (which reduces fuel use), and because there’s such quick turnover, the fields don’t dry out. So the straw forms a mulch that holds moisture, oozes with carbon-sequestering organic matter and, he
hypothesizes, keeps cooler. This means he’s using roughly the same total water to grow both crops as he would if he just grew cotton.

“We bought a new farm by Gila Bend in 2014 and converted it all to this system,” Rayner says. “The prior owner was always short of water. They wanted to drill a new well. Now we have every well off a few days every month, even in the middle of the summertime, because we’re doing more with what we have.”

About 100 miles northeast of here, the “doing more with what we have” philosophy is saving one of Arizona’s last free-flowing rivers.

Cotton processing plant, circa 1960sAlong the 195-mile Verde River, most of the dams were built by beavers. Ninety-two species of mammals scamper and splash on the shore. Endangered native fishes swim alongside kayakers. And so many birds flutter in the cottonwood canopy that this riparian area boasts the highest avian density ever recorded in North America. Together with the Salt River, this federally designated Wild and Scenic River provides water to 10 Metro Phoenix cities through the Salt River Project (SRP). Local farmers also divert water from the Verde and its tributaries to irrigate some 6,000 acres of farmland.

“It’s concerning ecologically because we already have sections of the river that are nearly dry as a result of irrigation diversions,” says Kimberly Schonek, The Nature Conservancy’s Verde River project manager. “So a lot of our work has focused on improving those stretches of river but also looking at projections for the future and knowing that climate change and increased use are putting more demands on the river… We have this wonderful natural resource, and protecting it and restoring it is very important because we’re not getting more of these places.”

However, instead of working against farmers, the Nature Conservancy is working with them. Schonek installed solar-powered ditch gates that monitor water levels and automatically rise or lower in response, delivering the precise amount of water farmers need. Just one of these gates saves up to 6 million gallons of water a day in critically dewatered sections of river. The organization is currently building its fourth gate.

Through a cost-sharing program, the Conservancy is helping farmers install drip irrigation, which reduces demand from the river by half, Schonek says. In addition, the organization is encouraging farmers to convert to less thirsty crops. One Verde Valley farmer switched from alfalfa to carrots, which can use about two-thirds less water. “So it helps the river, and the farmer gets a more profitable crop,” Schonek says. “It’s a win-win.”

harvesting cotton at a ranch east of Mesa, circa 1950sThe Nature Conservancy is also working on what could be a triple win for rivers, farmers and beer lovers: It’s nurturing Arizona’s first malted barley industry. Barley – the camel of crops – uses 2.5 to 3 acre-feet of water per acre annually. Importantly, it uses that water at the right time. Farmers grow barley in spring, when rivers are flush, then stop watering and start harvesting in June, when rivers need all the liquid they can get.

Farmers typically shun barley since growing it for cattle feed guarantees a monetary loss. But growing beer-destined varieties and malting them adds value to the crop. So The Nature Conservancy is bringing in experts to assist Verde Valley farmers to cultivate barley. It’s also reducing farmers’ risk by shouldering some of their costs if there is a loss. Simultaneously, the nonprofit is incubating a startup called Sinagua Malt, which plans to open a malt house in Camp Verde by the end of 2017.

This could be a boon for Arizona brewers, who currently have no local source for malted barley. Last year during the pilot phase, Gilbert’s Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. brewed the Verde’s barley to craft an entirely Arizona-born beer, Connection Saison.

The Nature Conservancy aims to convert 600 acres in the Verde Valley to barley and eventually expand the malted barley scheme throughout the Southwest. “It’s pretty exciting to think that instead of saying, ‘Hey, farmer, grow a low-water-use crop,’ what we’ve done is invest in starting up a new market,” Schonek says. “As far as I know, this is the first time this has actually been done as an organized effort with the intent being river conservation.”

Cotton Week exhibit, 1961Adam Hatley, a Scottsdale cotton, alfalfa and wheat farmer who sources his water from the Verde and Salt rivers, is intrigued by growing barley for brewers. “If I put a pencil to it, and it made sense economically, I would be more than willing to do something like that… It makes sense to be more diversified.” That’s why he’s converting 400 acres to organic salad greens – water-saving, high-value crops.

Schonek and all the farmers acknowledge that switching crops presents hurdles. Farmers must learn to grow a new plant, buy specialized and expensive new equipment, and work out new contracts for harvesting and distribution. There are also ecological barriers. Rayner couldn’t switch to growing vegetables, since he gets all his water from wells, and Goodyear’s groundwater is too salty. Thelander could grow vegetables, but he’d have to compete with well-established regions in Arizona and California, and risk producing during a season when the market is saturated.

Robert, Perry and Ron Rayner at the family farmThe farmers still believe in cotton. They say it’s the coolest clothing in the heat, and a more eco-friendly alternative to some other fabrics. The trend for cheap, throwaway, H&M-style fashion is made possible, Rayner says, through polyester. That material is made from petroleum, which fuels greenhouse gases and wars. Every time we wash fossil fuel fabrics such as polyester, acrylics and nylon, we’re flushing up to 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers into rivers and oceans, according to a 2016 study from Plymouth University. Some of those micro-plastics may return to us when we eat shellfish and fish.

When we step into our closets in the morning, we’re choosing between wearing water use or wearing crude oil. Of course, everything we wear, eat and do uses both resources, plus many more. There are no easy answers.

The future seems as hazy and dry as a haboob – made ever more ominous by studies like one that recently emerged from Cornell University, where scientists predicted with 90-plus percent certainty that a mega-drought “worse than anything seen during the last 2,000 years” will strike the Southwest by the end of the century.

As such, most of the cotton farmers interviewed by PHOENIX were receptive to the challenge of change – and some will have no choice. Thelander and other farmers who use CAP water will lose their supply in 2030 due to an allotment clause that gave them cheaper water short-term. And in five years, the South Mountain Freeway will plow through Rayner’s Goodyear property, where he spent his childhood. He has farms elsewhere in Arizona, but, he says, “I think it will be the end of this location.”

Factoring in all the variables, Scottsdale’s Hatley is content with his decision to expand into trendy salad greens. But he’s not sure if he’s making a smart financial move. “In three years, ask me that question,” he says, “and I’ll have a better answer.”


For more than 50 years, PHOENIX magazine's experienced writers, editors, and designers have captured all sides of the Valley with award-winning and insightful writing, and groundbreaking report and design. Our expository features, narratives, profiles, and investigative features keep our 385,000 readers in touch with the Valley's latest trends, events, personalities and places.