By Michelle Talsma Everson
Students growing up in Arizona learn about the state’s five C’s: copper, cattle, citrus, climate and cotton. While the cotton industry has waned in recent years due to urban sprawl, cotton is still one of Arizona’s top agricultural commodities. In fact, the state remains one of the top cotton producers in the nation.
Arizona cotton 101
Cotton became a major crop in Arizona during World War I when the U.S. government needed sources for industrial fabric material, according to Calcot (calcot.org), a leading cooperative that markets cotton worldwide. With a year-round dry climate, Arizona was the perfect spot to build a world-class irrigation system and start farming the plant that can be used to create everything from clothing to tires.
In its early days, Arizona became the birthplace of Pima Cotton, also known as long staple cotton, cites arizonaexperience.org, an online resource produced by the state. Pima Cotton’s extra long fibers made it ideal for industrial and trade goods; the variety is now known as Supima and is still in demand, but the most popular type of cotton today is a short staple variety called Upland.
Cotton continues to be a mainstay crop, even though urban development began to take its toll on the industry beginning in the 1970s. Rick Lavis, executive director of the Arizona Cotton Ginners Association, estimates that there are currently 161,000 acres of cotton production in Maricopa County and 900 cotton farmers represented by the association.
“Central Arizona is an ideal growing climate for cotton because of the weather and the water supply due to irrigation,” Lavis says. “Many people don’t realize that cotton is still a major industry here. I’ve been in this industry 33 years and am proud to say that we grow a product that is sustainable and environmentally friendly.”
Some eco-friendly factors of the state’s cotton industry include the growers’ management of water, including using drip irrigation systems; reduced levels of pesticides (some farmers even use moths); and efforts to recycle the cotton plant into other products.
Research on cotton growers’ perspectives
Like many cotton growers, Lavis acknowledges that water availability and management is one of industry’s biggest concerns. To learn more about how water policies affect central Arizona farmers, researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) and the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension are collaborating on a study to understand farmers’ perspectives on water management.
“Our study examines how or whether water policies affect their [the farmers’] operations and how they thought through the process of water management,” explains Abigail York, PhD, an associate professor at ASU.
Hallie Eakin, PhD, another ASU associate professor working on the project, says that so far the research has unearthed some interesting finds. “Because cotton farmers in central Arizona rely almost exclusively on irrigation, they tend not to worry about rainfall,” Eakin notes. “But, in turn, they need sufficient water through irrigation efforts, and a lot of that water is affected by the Colorado Basin.”
The research, which is funded by a grant from the Sectoral Applications Research Program (SARP) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Program Office and the Decision Center for a Desert City, is still ongoing. York says results will allow cotton growers, policy makers and urban planners to talk about how water can be better utilized and provide information for the ongoing conversation about water management.
“The cotton farmers who have stuck it out in the industry are pretty committed to being here,” Eakin says. “They of course want cotton farming to continue, and this study can help address what that means for water availability, electricity and more.”
The study is being conducted through several research methods, including working with Lavis to hand out surveys to area farmers, on-site interviews and others. York elaborates that cotton farmers often feel misunderstood by the general public and policy makers. She believes this study can help address several questions about the industry.
“Farmers want people to know why agriculture is here and why Arizona is a good environment for cotton,” she says. “Perhaps this research will help everyone see agriculture in a new way. Some concerns we’re learning about is that cotton is good for the state, but it uses a lot of water. There is no simple answer.”
Eakin adds that this research into cotton growers’ perspectives can also aid other sectors that may find it advantageous to have the state maintain its agricultural footprint.
To learn more about the Perspectives of Central Arizona Farmers on Water, Risk and Change in Agriculture study, visit azfarmersurvey.wordpress.com.
To learn more about the ASU School of Sustainability, visit schoolofsustainability.asu.edu.
Photo 1 courtesy of University of Arizona Agriculture and Life Sciences
Photo 2: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Cortaro_Farms