Advances in equipment technology and hybrid seed genetics have helped make Adam Hatley’s urban desert operation more efficient, he says.
In the middle of the verdant Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation, the rush of water from recent rains pours over an irrigation diversion dam and drowns out the distant hum of metro Phoenix, Ariz. The dam is part of Adam Hatley’s diversified crop operation, Associated Farms, which includes 3,800 acres that he leases from the Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
Hatley is one of three farmers who lease agricultural land that is part of the 52,000-acre reservation. His flood-irrigated desert operation includes intensive cotton, alfalfa and corn production and is surrounded by the challenges of an urban setting. It’s all made possible by affordable tribal water rights.
“Agriculture historically has always been the Pima and Maricopa tribes’ culture,” explains Hatley, braking at a busy intersection between his fields. “Today, this is farming in an urban setting. There’s traffic all of the time, houses near every field and some vandalism. But what makes farming on the reservation so attractive to us is the affordable water.”
Water Costs. Many producers across Arizona use Central Arizona Project water from the Colorado River, the cost of which can range from $45 to $65 per acre-foot. That’s somewhat higher than
the tribal water rights that are negotiated into the five-year leases Hatley signs with the Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
In the Southwest, where irrigation water is a commodity, an acre-foot of water equals 325,851 gal. It takes Hatley 6 to 7 acre-feet of water to raise about 2¾ bales (1,350 lb.) per acre of upland cotton on his sandy, slightly sloping land.
Hatley skirts puddles of water as he maneuvers along an irrigation canal—the Valley of the Sun has just experienced torrential winter rains, in excess of 3" in a couple of days, which is more than all of the rainfall here in 2009.
As Hatley and other desert farmers working these red sandy silts and loams will attest, they’d rather not see even ½" of rain at a time, particularly during the growing season. “Our agricultural practices really are timed and geared for irrigation,” he says.
Urban Farming. Hatley’s father, Aubrey, who at 75 is an active partner in the operation, took on the challenges of urban desert farming in 1976 after moving to Arizona from Texas.
“We were farming in the middle of nowhere in Texas,” Aubrey recalls. After moving to the booming Phoenix area, he took up farming on the tribal land surrounded by the bustling communities of Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa and Fountain Hills.
“It was quite a difference. If you make dust out in the middle of nowhere in Texas, no one really cares. You don’t dare do that here,” Aubrey says. Also, he points out, there is no aerial spraying allowed in the metropolitan confines of the reservation. “So, you make the necessary adjustments.”
Adam joined his father’s operation in 1986. Over time, they quit growing produce and concentrated their efforts on raising 2,300 acres of upland cotton, 800 acres of alfalfa and about 300 acres of corn. While Associated Farms uses the alfalfa and corn to provide hay and silage to some of the area’s large dairies, cotton is king on this operation, requiring carefully timed irrigation and equipment.
“I can’t control the markets,” says the younger Hatley, a member of Calcot, a cooperative cotton marketing organization in the Southwest. “So, I need to use the technologies available to keep my margins as profitable as possible.”
- January 2011