January 5, 2007

6 Min Read

You might say that Brian Rhodes jumped from the frying pan and back into the fire in his choice of professions. Rhodes, who lives in Casa Grande, Ariz., was working as an investment banker with Lehman Brothers in 2002 when he decided to leave the bright lights of New York to return to Arizona and to farming.

These days Rhodes says it's difficult to tell which is more challenging — raising capital for large corporations and providing advisory services for mergers and acquisitions or farming 2,000 acres of cotton, silage corn and alfalfa in the Arizona desert.

“It was a combination of factors, but one year after 9/11, my wife and I decided we wanted to leave New York and move back to Arizona,” he said. “The lifestyle and the work are polar opposites, but we love being in farming even though it can be a challenge.”

Unlike many young farmers today, Rhodes didn't grow up on a farm or with farming connections. He started farming on his own after he finished high school and started attending Arizona State University. “It was a small farm, but it gave me a taste of what farming was like.”

When he graduated from ASU in the late 1990s, he decided to try his hand in the world of corporate America.

“I received some good experience in New York,” said Rhodes, who spent three years with Lehman Brothers. “But the longer I stayed on Wall Street the more I realized I wanted to get back into farming.

Now in his fourth year back in his home state, Rhodes says he's faced some challenges, not the least of which has been the rapid expansion of new home construction from Phoenix and Chandler into the farming areas of Arizona.

That expansion appears to be slowing a little now that the bloom seems to be off the housing market for the moment.

But Rhodes is still having to make adjustments in his farming plans to cope with urbanization.

Of the 2,000 acres he farms, he plants about one-half in cotton and the remainder in silage corn and alfalfa. The latter has become a mainstay for a number of Arizona farming operations because of the surge in the number of dairies moving into Arizona.

“We grow alfalfa for two local dairies,” he said. “One milks 10,000 cows and the other is close to that. The dairies prefer not to go more than five miles to pick up hay.”

When Rhodes left for New York, the area around Maricopa and Stanfield, Ariz., where he farms, was primarily in cotton. Now new housing developments — and dairy operations — are springing up around Maricopa and Casa Grande.

“It's not uncommon for farmland to sell for $55,000 to $60,000 an acre now,” he said.

“It's difficult for farmers to farm to make a living when you're competing for land at those kinds of prices.”

Much of Arizona's farmland is now owned by real estate developers who buy it and lease it back to farming operations until they are ready to build houses. The lease arrangements can create special problems for farmers.

Rhodes began growing alfalfa soon after he resumed his farming career in 2002. His proximity to area dairies made alfalfa and silage corn a good fit for his operation, but he's having to go back to the drawing board on alfalfa.

“Alfalfa is a three- to four-year crop, and we can't always be sure we can harvest the alfalfa all four years.

“In the past, the developers were buying out the crop when they decided to build on that land, but as land was being developed at a faster pace developers decided the rental income was such an inconsequential amount of money for them to bother with having to buy the crop that they don't want to do that now.”

Arizona growers normally plant alfalfa between Oct. 1 and Oct. 15, which allows them to get the crop in the ground before they begin the bulk of the cotton-harvesting season.

Arizona growers can expect to get 10 to 12 hay cuttings for a total of 10 to 12 tons of alfalfa per year once the crop has been planted one or two years. Alfalfa is a more expensive crop to grow because it uses substantially more water than cotton or corn silage.

Dairies pay a premium for alfalfa grown on farms in the local area.

“Hauling hay is a big expense and having a reliable supplier close by makes it more economical for them.

“And, if they decide they need forage sooner than they expected, they can ask the farmer to cut the alfalfa in such and such a field a day or two earlier than scheduled,” says Rhodes.

Interviewed by telephone following the cotton harvest, Rhodes said 2006 has turned out to be a banner year for many Arizona cotton farmers.

“The field where we were visiting averaged 3.7 bales per acre,” said Rhodes, referring to a field planted in Stoneville 5599 BR that he harvested on Nov. 9. “I had several fields that picked 4.5 bales per acre. We averaged 3.75 bales per acre across the farm.”

Rhodes, whose wife, the former April Gilbert, grew up in Shaw, Miss., knows that sounds like tall cotton to farmers in the Mississippi Delta.

But he knows from comparing notes with Delta growers that his production expenses are about $200 to $300 per acre higher than theirs.

“Most of that is due to water costs in this area,” he said.

“We have to purchase water from irrigation districts, and the costs have been rising. What's unfortunate is to have these yields and still not receive the kinds of returns we'd like to see from our crop.”

Rhodes has installed Auto Steer guidance systems on his tractors and is using John Deere's GreenStar system to help reduce production expenses in his operation.

“We can use the GPS to plant up to that pole,” he says, pointing to a utility pole in the middle of his cotton field.

“Then we can go to the other side and continue planting on line with the rest of the field.”

The Auto Steer guidance systems are also helping growers address the problem of labor shortages in the Maricopa area.

“We don't have that many experienced tractor drivers in this area anymore,” he said. “They can go work for the construction companies. But you can train almost anyone to operate an Auto Steer system in five minutes.

“With RTK (real time kinetic) accuracy, you can also make sure you're pulling up rows exactly where you need them to be.”

He also grows seed under contract with companies such as Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Co.

“The production contracts are a nice way to be able to look at the new varieties before they come on the market and see if they suit your farm.”

Rhodes and his wife have discussed the idea of moving to Mississippi to farm, but he says he isn't ready to leave Arizona just yet.

“I had hoped that I would be able to purchase a farm and have it for a long-term investment,” he says. “But you can't afford to buy land and pay for it by farming here. The margins just aren't there.”

He hopes to be able to continue farming most of the land he has now. “I think the housing market will have to slow down out here now that the economy seems to be cooling off a little. I don't think this land will have houses on it in five years.”

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