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Arizona farmers expand water conservation, crop options amid drought

Four speakers
Speakers at the Irrigated Agriculture in Arizona Conference, from left, included meteorologist Paul Brown, University of Arizona, Tucson; plus Arizona farmers Arnott Duncan, Duncan Family Farms, Goodyear; and Terry and Ramona Button, Ramona Farms, Sacaton.
Four ways to weather drought: more irrigation improvements; different water-use crops; higher value crops; and higher soil organic matter

About 350 people in Arizona’s farming and ranching industries attended a one-day 2017 Irrigated Agriculture Conference held this spring in Tucson where 33 speakers shared a smorgasbord of viewpoints, problems, and potential solutions to Arizona’s worsening drought-based water woes.

2017 is Arizona’s 17th consecutive year of drought, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources. The conference allowed boots-on-the-ground farmers, politicians, university leaders, water groups, irrigation districts, and other groups to share strategies to survive limited water availability in the Grand Canyon.

Arizona’s looming water shortage, partly tied to an expected water shortage call on the Colorado River at Lake Mead, is likely several years away, partly delayed by the recent wet fall and winter in the Upper Rocky Mountain Basin. The extra moisture was tied to the atmospheric river storms which blanketed rain and snow on California and then headed east toward the Rocky Mountains.

When a Tier One Colorado River shortage occurs, Central Arizona agriculture will take the lion’s share of the water reduction, including an estimated 200,000-plus acre foot surface water reduction to Central Arizona farms and ranches.

Entrepreneurial ways to survive

Half a dozen farmers took to the podium at the Irrigated Ag event to discuss their farming plans and strategies to share their efforts in water conservation and cropping systems, including Central Arizona farmers Arnott Duncan of Duncan Family Farms based at Goodyear and Dan Thelander of Tempe Farm Company who farms around Maricopa.

Duncan Family Farms includes 100 percent organic-grown baby leaf vegetables, culinary herbs, strawberries, special vegetable items for retail, and carrots in primarily light-textured soils.

“We set up our irrigation systems to specifically grow these items,” Duncan noted.

Duncan also has several farms in California yet his comments were based solely on his Arizona operation.

Most water used on Duncan’s Arizona farm is groundwater. He irrigates primarily with sprinklers, mostly using aluminum pipe, plus some drip. Sensors help schedule water, yet all pumps and valves are operated manually. The Duncan’s farm uses portable irrigation systems as much of the land is leased.   

“We rely heavily on groundwater for food-safe water when the food product is above ground.”

Irrigation water is run with or without compounds, including fertilizer or in some cases fungicides such as elemental sulfur to help control foliar diseases. Water is also harnessed to control temperature and humidity in the soil.

“When we plant on the shoulders early and late it’s very warm so we apply water to cool the beds which helps increase germination,” Duncan said. “During the winter, we turn on the same sprinklers to help control frost.”

Water is also used to “lubricate the soil.” Since harvest occurs one-half inch above the soil line, the wet soil helps reduce the amount of field removed with the crop at harvest.

Water is used to help generate compost for the on-farm compost program, one of the largest in the Southwest. Water also helps push salts deeper into the soil, plus controls dust.

Adding organic matter to the soil is important for Duncan’s crops, not only for organic production but since crops are grown with shallow roots systems.

“Trying to hold water and nutrients in the soil is greatly enhanced by increasing the organic matter.”

Today, Duncan’s water conservation practices utilize a high pressure main line manifold irrigation system with sprinkler valves pre-set for the right distance to provide the highest application efficiency.

Soil sensors help target the best time for irrigation, yet Duncan also relies on the art of years of field experience. Plastic mulches and floating row covers help create and maintain moisture in soil beds.

The Arizona farmer grows crops mostly during the winter months to reduce water use compared to higher evaporative heat conditions during the Arizona hot 110-plus degree summer.

Duncan uses mostly transplants to save water as less water is needed to grow transplants compared to direct seeding. Transplants also allow him to plant and harvest more product, including four plantings-harvests per farming year.

Another water-saving practice is growing some crops, including strawberries, inside controlled environments (high hoops or greenhouses), utilizing clear plastic or shade cloth to heat or cool the plants.

Duncan says these practices save water and other raw materials but also enhance crop yield and quality which benefit the farm’s bottom line.

In the future, Duncan Farms aims to save additional water by using plant and soil sensors to automate irrigation events. He plans to shift to a system of wells, pressure-managing booster pumps, and valve openers, plus switch the aluminum sprinkler systems to PVC (portable) to eliminate water leaks.

Profitability in water-short years

Dan Thelander and his son and nephew farm in the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation District near Maricopa.

“The potential for water shortage is something that we are definitely very worried about and are trying to plan for,” said Thelander who then asked, “How do you plan for water shortages?”

This year’s Thelander cropping system includes about 1,600 acres of Desert Durum wheat; 2,200 acres of alfalfa including 400 acres in drip irrigation; and 250 acres of guayule (natural rubber plant) farmed with drip. About 1,000 acres of cotton includes about 400 acres each irrigated by drip and furrow, plus about 200 acres of double cropped cotton following wheat.

The Thelander family is working on four methods to weather the drought’s impact on their farming operation: installing more irrigation improvements; experimenting with different water-use crops; trying to find higher value crops to grow; and farming to increase and maintain higher soil organic matter to reduce water use.

1 - Irrigation improvements

As too many growers on the front line are aware, many farm commodity prices are in the tank. Thelander says alfalfa prices have dropped $50-$75 per ton over the last several years; the wheat price is down $400 per hundredweight; and the cotton price is up.

However, Thelander quipped that the higher cotton price around 70 cents per pound at press time was the same cotton price when he started farming more than 40 years ago.

“It’s hard to get too excited about 40 year-old prices,” the farming veteran said.

With commodity prices low and margins thin or upside down, Thelander says it’s difficult to consider expensive irrigation improvements, including quality drip systems priced around $2,500 per acre. Even though drip is extremely efficient with water, he says, it requires many years to recover the large investment.

He asked, “Will there be sufficient water supplies in six or eight years when hopefully a farmer has paid off a new system; or will water supplies diminish leaving a farmer with a nice system but not enough water to run through it. This is a major concern when a grower considers investing money.”

2 - Lower water-use crops

Thelander is often asked, “Why don’t you grow crops that use less water?” His response is yet another question – “Would lower water-use crops keep his family’s farm in business year end and year out?”

Thelander says barley is one of the lowest consumptive use crops grown in his area, but low corn prices in the Midwest have pushed barley prices lower so planting barley “would guarantee a big loss at year end.”

Wheat uses slightly more water than barley but Thelander would probably lose a little money this year on wheat unless a higher yield is achieved.

3 - Higher value crops

Thelander says he’s trying to find higher value crops to increase profitability, even if the crop uses more water.

Thelander says, “If a farmer can grow a higher water use crop that’s also a high value crop then the farmer might be able to fallow acres to irrigate the more profitable crop.”

Overall, the end result could be, even with fallowed land, an overall profit. Thelander believes he’s found a good high value, low water-use crop to grow – guayule.

“Guayule just might be that crop for us in the future,” Thelander told the large crowd.

Guayule is a desert crop grown in part for its natural rubber under the bark. With traditional latex rubber from trees, some people are allergic to latex rubber gloves. There is no allergy to guayule rubber. Thelander calls guayule rubber is a good cropping option.

“Guayule would be a great fit for irrigated desert farms where production could increase to meet future demand,” he says.

4 - Organic matter

Thelander believes farming soils with higher organic matter can reduce water use on farms. This year, he’s trying a double crop farming practice made popular by farmer Ronald Rayner, who farms in partnership with his brother Robert at A-Tumbling-T-Ranches at Goodyear.

Thelander says a typical Rayner cropping rotation program is to plant wheat in December, followed by cotton planted in June and harvested in November – and using this rotation for several years. When the Rayners get ready to grow alfalfa they start with sorghum silage and alfalfa follows in the fall.

“The amazing thing is the Rayners have seen reduced water usage for their crops overall per acre,” Thelander says. “Ron attributes it to increasing levels of organic matter. He has seen wheat and cotton crops make good yields on about four acre feet of water total.”

Thelander believes this farming strategy could be a “real game changer for irrigation districts like his – the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District - since it allows wells to operate more in the spring and fall, and not have a huge water demand in the middle of summer when traditional cotton crops use the largest amount of water.

“We are going to try this double cropping strategy on our farm for the next several years to see if we can duplicate the success that the Rayners have had in Goodyear,” Thelander says.

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