Standing in a field of cotton crops north of Thatcher, J.R. Howard can point to the house his great-grandfather lived in and the 40 acres around the house that he farmed.

The house is owned by a relative but the land is Howard’s, and is now incorporated into his 4,000-acre cotton farm.

It hasn’t always been that way. The family’s story is similar to many farmers and ranchers in eastern Arizona and around the country. A story of a lifestyle and working culture that has been recast and reconfigured as the U.S. economy changes and access to resources like water becomes more strained.

But still, it holds strong and is as important to the local community and economy as ever.

Cotton in Thatcher

“Everybody had 40 acres then,” Howard said of the Gila River Valley in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Everybody in the area grew food crops for personal use and usually reserved a small plot to grow cash crops to sell. As farming became more of a business, people bought more acreage. As far as Howard knows, cotton is what his family has always grown.

Howard’s great-grandfather bought 40 acres of land outside of Thatcher in 1911. When he retired, he split his 40 acres among his four sons. Howard’s grandfather bought out two of his brothers, so he ended up with 30 acres altogether. With a business partner, Howard’s grandfather leased another 1,200 acres to grow cotton. Howard’s father, Ronald G. Howard, grew up farming that 1,200 acres. But when that business partnership dissolved, Howard’s grandfather lost control of all but his original 30 acres of cotton farming land.

Without much land to farm, Ronald G. Howard went to work for Phelps Dodge as a welder and did whatever he could do to save money so he could return to farming.

Starting from 17.5 acres of farmland, Ronald G. Howard slowly acquired about 2,800 acres of cotton-growing farmland that Howard grew up farming. Now, after acquiring 1,200 more acres himself, Howard’s farm is about 4,000 acres.

“I think we’re good where we’re at,” he said, adding that he’s now focusing on paying off debts and mortgages rather than trying to expand further.

Howard grows short staple cotton and extra long staple Pima cotton, which he described as being better and more sought after than most any other type of cotton.

The cotton is harvested in October and November and sent to a mill, where Howard said it is destined for more expensive, higher-quality clothing.

While his cotton might be destined for high-priced clothes, Howard said nobody should expect to get rich quick in the local cotton economy. While cotton prices have gone up this year and the last few weeks of rain has lessened the impact of the years-long drought, he said the previous three years of plummeting prices and little rain made for a hectic couple of years.

“For 2021, we’re basically digging ourselves out of a hole,” Howard said. “This last week of rain has been a godsend. It saved our bacon.”

Even back in his great-grandfather’s day, Howard said access to water was a problem. His great-grandfather and other farmers in the area relied solely on the Gila River for water to irrigate their crops. If there was no water in the river, there was no water for their crops. Now Howard relies on wells and a series of canals to irrigate his crops. But access to water isn’t easy or simple.

In an attempt to figure out water rights on the Gila River, the federal government in 1925 filed a complaint on behalf of the San Carlos Apache in the U.S. District Court For the District of Arizona. One of the main complaints was that water users in the upper Gila Valley were depleting the river, leaving next to nothing for the San Carlos Apache and the Gila River Indian Community to irrigate their own farms.

In 1935, the courts approved the Globe Equity Decree, a settlement that was supposed to divvy up water rights neatly for the Gila River Indian Community, the San Carlos Apache and farmers across Graham and Greenlee counties and into Virden, New Mexico. Instead, decades of lawsuits have continued to make the subject of water rights strained and complicated.

Another lawsuit over the decree and water rights is currently making its way through the courts so local farmers and ranchers are hesitant to talk. But the topic of water rights and the future of farming and ranching in Graham and Greenlee counties weighs heavy on the minds of many farmers and ranchers.

Alfalfa in Duncan

Matt Reynolds grew up farming alfalfa on his grandfather’s farm in Duncan.

His 200-acre farm stretches from Duncan into Virden, New Mexico. But the combination of land he owns and leases just isn’t profitable enough to make ends meet. With an understanding boss who farms as well and lets Reynolds work flexible hours, Reynolds works a full-time job as a contractor for the mines and then comes home to run his farm on his off hours.

“I could probably do 12 hours a day (on the farm), but you just can’t make it these days,” Reynolds said. “Everything is so expensive.”

Reynolds said essential farming equipment like tractors can put a farmer hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Without his grandfather giving him some of his own farming equipment to start out, Reynolds said he didn’t think he could have done it.

At 26, Reynolds suspects he’s one of the youngest farmers in the area. But to make it a career, he thinks he’d need at least 1,000 acres. With land going for about $6,000 per acre, arable land becoming more scarce in Duncan, and continuing concerns over water rights, Reynolds is a little cautious about the future of farming in the area.

“We could lose it all eventually,” he said. “The future doesn’t look good if you’re not optimistic.”

Water rights issues are very real in Reynolds’ family. His grandfather farmed in Estancia, New Mexico, in the 1970’s and 80’s but he was forced to leave his property after losing his water rights in the 1990’s.

“What we need is more public awareness,” Reynolds said of local water rights issues. “We need unity.”

For now, Reynolds is working on adding more acreage to his farm so he can one day become a full-time farmer.

“Sometimes I wonder if I should sell my farm and go do something else. Most days I don’t, though. I don’t know what I’d do,” Reynolds said, “There’s nothing I’d rather do than farming. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice. But it’s my passion. I love it.”

A reliable business

Greenlee County District Three Supervisor Richard Lunt remembers the days when agriculture and ranching seemed to be much more stable professions.

“Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, there was probably 30-plus families making a living from agriculture, now there’s probably around five,” Lunt said. Back then, Lunt said Duncan had Ford and Chevrolet car dealerships, a John Deere tractor dealership, three grocery stores, several gas stations, a couple of bars and a movie theater, all sustained by the income of local farmers and ranchers.

Lunt’s grandfather came to the York Valley from Mexico in 1916 with a cow named Buttercup, Lunt said. With his brother, he bought 40 acres, divided it and grew corn, oats and hay. He later got into the dairy business.

Lunt was raised in the dairy industry, but in June 2020, the last of Lunt Dairy’s cows were sold off. The dairy closed after operating more than a century.

Jace Lunt, the great-great-great grandson of the original owners, said at the time that there were labor shortages and a lot of older partners of the dairy wanted to retire.

Richard Lunt, who was one of the partners until he became a Greenlee County supervisor in 2004, said another factor also contributed to the demise of the family dairy and other farms around Greenlee County — water.

“With the water being the way it is, more and more of agriculture is going out of business,” Lunt said. “Water is what gives the land value... without water your land is worthless.”

Under the confusing and litigious reality of water rights in eastern Arizona, Lunt said it’s tough to get younger people interested in going into agriculture.

“One day families are farming and the next day your land is worthless,” he said, “It’s tough for me to see family members and friends go out of business because of some outside influence outside of their control comes in and ruins their livelihood. I try to be positive, but the truth hurts.”

Lunt said he tries to lobby and advocate for the interests of farmers and ranchers in his position on the Greenlee County Board of Supervisors and in the halls of the state Legislature, but a lot of people, especially in metropolitan areas, don’t understand the value and importance of farming and ranching.

“My whole life I’ve believed in American and local agriculture. People just have forgotten where their food comes from. It should be disturbing to them,” Lunt said. “Your only defeat is when you quit trying to make things change.”

Changing agriculture

Randy Norton grew up in the Gila Valley in the 1970s and ‘80s. Back then, he said heavy rains and good snow pack in the mountains meant that farmers and ranchers had plenty of water to irrigate their crops and quench their cattle’s thirst. They also had plenty of vegetation for the cattle to eat. In the mid-1990s, Norton said the snow pack that feeds into the Gila River started to decrease along with the summer monsoon rain.

“It’s cyclical,” Norton said of the climate. In his job as the the director of the Graham County Cooperative Extension of the University of Arizona and the resident director of the Safford Agricultural Center, Norton has talked to older farmers who remember what the 1930s and 1940s were like in the valley — they said it was in a dry spell.

“There’s no doubt we’re in a drought,” Norton said.

There’s also no doubt agriculture uses a lot of water. According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, irrigated agriculture businesses use 74% of the state’s available water supply.

Part of Norton’s job is to help conduct agricultural experiments and educate local farmers on new technologies that could make farming in the area more efficient and less water and resource intensive.

That includes genetic modification and the testing of new farming equipment and technology that more accurately detects problems with crops. There are also new drip agriculture techniques and tests that show how different crops will grow in the area, like guayule, a shrub native to the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts that can be used to make natural rubber, ethanol and adhesives.

Since he started the job in 2000, Norton says his mailing list for farmers across the Gila Valley has shrunk from 70 to a number he can count on his hands. He thinks a majority of farmers in the valley left the business because they were pushed out by farmers consolidating their operations into larger and larger acreages. That isn’t just a local phenomenon, but a national one, he said. Norton estimated that around 10 to 12 farmers own about 90% of all the arable land in the Gila River Valley.

Research being done now to make farms more efficient and adaptable to changing climates and water availability will ensure that farming continues in the Gila Valley, Norton said, although it will look different and involve fewer people than it did decades ago.

“There’s no doubt we’re in hard times, but the people who came to the valley came in hard times, too,” he said. “I think I can be classified as an optimist.”

Ranching in Greenlee County

Jeff Menges, a rancher who owns and leases property close to the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, considers himself an optimist, too. But that’s not to say things have always been easy.

Raised in tiny Glenwood, New Mexico, Menges is a fourth-generation cattle rancher. He bought the property next to the conservation area in 1984, and moved into the house on the property in 1990. Since then he said ranching has treated him and his family pretty well. When the weather is good, there’s plenty of water and vegetation for his 700 to 800 cows.

“Any time it rains, things grow,” Menges said.

But starting in 1995, Menges said the lack of rain and the drought caused him to, at times, run only 85% of his normal capacity of cattle on his grazing land. In the last 17 to 18 months, with hardly any rain, Menges said his ranch came close to being in dire straits.

“We were at the end of our ropes. Everything depended on this last monsoon,” he said.

If it didn’t rain this year, Menges said he contemplated cutting back on most of his cattle.

After the past couple of weeks of heavy monsoon rains though, he’s in better spirits.

“Right now, we’re look like it’s going to be OK,” he said.

He still worries about water though, especially in light of the ongoing litigation of water rights of the Gila River. But he’s generally optimistic the litigation will eventually come to an end and it’s conclusion won’t mean an end to farming and ranching in Graham and Greenlee counties.

“I don’t feel like they’d do that to us,” Menges said.

Instead, Menges is confident ranchers will find ways to adapt and use the resources they have to make their operations work.

“A lot of ranchers’ goals is to leave the land better than you find it,” he said, calling ranching “renewable” since ranchers try to conserve the land they graze on by not running cattle through areas where vegetation is beginning to grow back. “There’s just more and more people and more demand for the product and we use it without a lot of resources,” he said.

Menges, 66, said he’ll still work on his 100-square-mile ranch for as long as he can, but he’s getting ready to retire. He said one of his sons is interested in becoming the fifth generation of Menges ranchers.

Load comments