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.”
Recent equipment upgrades and hybrid seed genetic technologies have offered a quantum leap in farming efficiencies. Hatley points out that Roundup Ready cotton varieties, for instance, allow spraying and cultivating in the same pass.
“I went from cultivating for morningglory seven times a season to once each season,” Hatley says. “In addition, I no longer apply pre-emergence chemicals.”
In more than 20 years of cotton farming, Hatley has seen the successful onset of insect growth regulators (IGR), as well as the eradication of the boll weevil several years ago. He didn’t spray for insects at all in 2009, relying instead on IGR. He used to spray about every eight days for pink bollworm, but with new traits in cotton, he doesn’t spray for bollworm at all now.
Advances in equipment technology have helped hone his operation as well. Hatley points to GPS auto-steer systems used on his four-row cotton pickers and for listing his flood-irrigated fields.
“Listing manually used to be a very specialized, time-consuming skill that only one of our employees was able to accomplish. Now, any of our operators can list thanks to the auto-steer system. It helps make more employees available for other immediate tasks at hand,” says Hatley, who maintains 16 to 18 fulltime employees.
When it comes to farming the desert, Hatley plants his boot on a dike and says, “Timing is everything. Farming here is management intensive. When it’s 105° or 110°, it’s vital to come back with water before the crop gets stressed.”
Enhancing his management structure is one valuable strategy Adam Hatley has brought home with him from TEPAP, The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers administered by Texas A&M University.
“All of our discussions at TEPAP concerning human resources and organizational structure helped me to see where I could restructure our employee management system in our operation,” Hatley says. “We were able to reassign some employees into positions ideally suited for them. We also implemented a middle-management system that ultimately helps me manage my time better.”
Hatley continues his work with the TEPAP program and believes it is an enormously valuable asset to his personal skill set, with its intensive sessions in areas such as best management practices and the art of negotiation.
“At TEPAP, we spend a lot of time in and out of the classroom discussing legal practices and paperwork and macroeconomics—how each element can influence changes in our commodity prices, so that we can go back down the line and track how those changes developed,” Hatley says.
“Whether you’re a high school graduate or a college-level graduate, TEPAP helps you hone your business acumen. You benefit from not only the instructors but from a network of producers from across the country.”
As Adam Hatley walks across a dormant alfalfa field outside of Phoenix, Ariz., he points out four distinctive mountains that are sacred to the local tribes: Camelback, Red Mountain, the snow-capped Four Peaks and the Superstitions. Years of farming tribal land has taught Hatley to farm around sensitive archeological sites in his fields. His employees constantly stumble across ancient Native American artifacts.
The land that Hatley farms was once farmed by an ancient agricultural tribe known as the Hohokam. The Hohokam constructed more than 300 miles of a precision canal irrigation system and farmed central and southern Arizona for several centuries until, archeologists say, the tribe mysteriously vanished around 1450. No one knows for sure why the Hohokam disappeared, but many point to a catastrophic drought as the most likely reason.
However, the tribe’s system of irrigation canals survived. Hatley says when later settlers took over the land, they discovered an irrigation system so precise to the rise and fall of the topography that the irrigation systems in place today still follow where the Hohokam built.
For more about the Hohokam culture or the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation, visit www.srpmic-nsn.gov.
Top Producer, January 2011