Water scarcity sees cotton farm shift to tourism

CASA GRANDE, Ariz. — When the Caywood family declares they are fair to middling, they may not be talking about a state of mind.

Fair to middling to ordinary are grades for cotton, which the family grows on its 250-acre farm at Casa Grande.

However, all that is changing as water becomes scarcer in the hot, dry state that once grew 650,000 acres of cotton. That has been cut back to about 120,000 acres.

The fourth-generation cotton farm, now run by Tommy and Sammie Caywood, started with 40 acres. The operation expanded to 250 acres of deeded property, as well as leased land.

This year most of the farm will be fallow, said Tommy’s daughter Nancy Caywood.

This county near Phoenix grows durum, alfalfa, cotton and cattle and depends on irrigation and deep wells because it receives only about seven inches of precipitation a year.

A dam was built on the nearby Gila River in 1928. The reservoir was built to hold 1.2 million acre feet of water but it has rarely been full.

“Right now, it has about 40,000 acre feet of water in it today. It got as low as 225,000 acre feet in 2012,” Nancy Caywood told a tour group from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

“Every year we receive a water allotment from our water district and it will tell us how much water we have for the following year. This year it was one half of an acre foot. We will only be able to support 70 acres of alfalfa on that and as far as cotton goes, we are only going to be able to put in about a quarter of an acre just for our tourists. The rest of our farm has to remain fallow,” she said.

Flow meters are placed on wells and water users are taxed.

Another water project was started from the Colorado River in 1982 and resulted in a 540-kilometre canal. Water has to be lifted as it crosses the desert.

“It makes water very expensive. It is pricing farmers out of the business,” she said.

Reservations, cities and farmers receive their allocations in that order.

In response to the water shortage and fewer amounts allocated to farms, the family moved toward agritourism and agriculture education.

Off-farm jobs are the norm. Caywood was a teacher, her son, Travis Hartman, is a paramedic and firefighter, and her husband, Al Robertson, is a retired pilot with Southwest Airlines.

“The way to make a living on the farm is to have a day job,” said Robertson, who spends his time acting as a tour guide on the farm.

Caywood earned her master’s degree in California and started a program called Farm Smart, which is designed to teach people about agriculture. When she left California, she brought the program to the family farm.

The farm receives about 2,000 visitors a year, who are shown how to produce cotton from seed to a mill-ready product. Each guest is charged $15 for the visit.

Cotton is planted in April when the soil is about 15 C. The fields are pre-irrigated and germination takes about two weeks.

They use genetically modified seeds to fight pink bollworm.

“We are required by the state of Arizona to use B.t. Roundup Ready cottonseed,” Caywood said.

A sack of seed costs $445 and covers about four acres of land.

Once the crop has started, it requires 1,200 millimetres of water throughout the summer.

In June, the plants bloom with purple flowers.

When the flowers fall off, a cotton boll about the size of a baby fingernail appears. It contains seeds and fibre.

The boll grows to about 2.5 centimetres in diameter and the weight of it forces the bolls to burst open.

Starting in late August and early September, the irrigation is turned off and as the plant dies back, they aerial spray a drying agent so the leaves shrivel and fall off and expose the cotton.

“We don’t want to pick leaves, so we want to give it plenty of time when it is time to pick cotton,” she said.

The plant is like a bush and the leaves around the bolls are razor sharp.

Arizona law states cotton has to be plowed down every year. Some places treat it as a perennial but the yields go down in subsequent years.

“Our yields in Arizona are some of the best in the country. On our farm, we average four bales an acre,” said Robertson.

Fields are harvested twice because the plants ripen from the top to the bottom.

The first pass takes off the higher level and a month later the lower canopy is removed. Depending on price, growers can also pick up the cotton from the ground, which is used for stuffing of mattresses or upholstery. This cotton is worth about 12 cents a pound.

The cotton is picked by machine and is packed into 15,000 lb. lots. It is held in a modular container that squeezes it into a dense bale.

The cotton is sent to a local gin, where the seed is removed and 500 lb. bales of mill-ready cotton are produced. The final product is called lint cotton.

The seeds are large and covered with a light fuzz. They can be used for oil, cosmetics and livestock feed.

The gin keeps the seeds and can sell them while the farmer gets back about a third of the crop.

“The rule of thumb is one-third is lint cotton and two-thirds is seed linters,” Robertson said.

Every lot is bar-coded and shows which farm and field it came from.

The cotton cannot be sold until it is graded for colour, fibre length, strength and other quality attributes. There are about 20 subsets of the grades, but fair is the best grade. There are 25 shades of white that is graded using a colour chart.

  • 1,200 pillowcases
  • 200 flat sheets, full size
  • 3,000 diapers
  • 800 men’s business shirts
  • 850 women’s blouses or shirts

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