Marana’s cotton crops are safe for now

A cotton harvester picks cotton off Moore Road in Marana in 2021. (Photo by Tom Leyde)

Pima County’s cotton crop is not likely to be deeply affected by the Southwest’s mega-drought and Colorado River water cutbacks this year thanks to wells and recharging of aquifers, growers and agriculture experts say.

Hundreds of acres of Pima cotton will be cultivated and irrigated in the Marana area this summer, but where does that leave future cotton crops? Their survival depends on water availability, cotton futures, the higher costs of farming and urbanization.

“Marana is pretty good so far,” said Vice Mayor Jon Post, a Marana-area cotton grower. “We’re going to be insulated from most of the (Colorado River) cutbacks. I’ve got several thousand acres planted. No one’s cutting back yet,” Post said.

Marana gets some water from the Central Arizona Project but not to the extent growers were receiving in Pinal County. Farmers there suffered devasting effects after water was cut this summer by nearly 20 percent, or 512,000 acre feet (one acre-foot of water supplies about 2,000 homes annually).

Those cuts also affected dairy, alfalfa and other farmers as well as businesses related to agriculture in Pinal County.

Last August the Bureau of Reclamation declared a water shortage at Lake Mead. Lake Mead is one of the Colorado River’s main reservoirs and water levels have fallen to historic lows. More than one-third of the state’s water flows through the Colorado River to Lake Mead.

In Pima County, where some 45% of land area is in farms, the farming situation is different.

“Marana has amazing groundwater,” Post said. “The (farming) district is more than 100 years old. Our groundwater is outstanding. Everybody’s recharging groundwater and doing a lot of water-saving projects.”

Those include land leveling to make sure water is evenly spread in fields and adding drip irrigation.

“Marana has worked hard,” Post said. “The Cortaro-Marana Irrigation District has worked hard with a lot of entities in the region to prepare for this and that. Marana is a very unique place in the state.”

The Cortaro Water Users’ Association (CWUA) is the agent for the Cortaro-Marana Irrigation District. It was organized in 1964, but it goes back to 1918 when it was known as Cortaro Farms. In 1946 it was sold to individuals and the CWUA was incorporated.

The district is a state agency. It has 42 operating wells and three pumps to transfer water from the CAP canal to irrigation canals. The wells deliver more than 30,000 acre-feet of water every irrigation season, the organization’s website says.

The district also has an allotment of treated water pumped into the rivers by the sewage treatment plant on Ina Road. This water is used to recharge ground water.

Agriculture technology also helped Marana cotton farmers be more efficient, Post said. Field monitors and soil monitors have changed the way farmers apply water and fertilizer.

Pima cotton, the type grown by Marana growers, was developed at the University of Arizona by the late Walker Bryan, a university plant breeder. Released in 1953, the variety has longer and stronger fibers than upland cotton and is in high demand. Arizona produces about half the Pima cotton in the U.S.

“Marana is a very productive area with a moderate growing season,” said Jeffrey C. Silvertooth. Silvertooth, a professor at the University of Arizona, has a Ph.D. in soil science.

As long as the Marana area has good soil and water cotton growers will survive, he said. “It’s (Pima cotton) a stable crop and there’s a good market for it right now,” Silvertooth said. “The market is extremely strong around the world. It’s (Marana) a small niche, but it’s extremely productive. They have good farmers out there.”

Before the Great Recession, Silvertooth said a lot of Marana agriculture land was purchased by developers. Yet when the housing market crunch came they leased land back to farmers for agriculture.

This year Arizona cotton farmers planted 20,000 acres of Pima cotton compared to just 9,000 acres last year. Upland cotton farmers drastically reduced planting this year with just 82,000 acres compared to 120,000 acres in 2021. Upland cotton is a different species from Pima cotton.

The state’s total cotton crop in the 2020-2021 market totaled 1,396,684 bales, and growers were paid 73 cents a pound. The number of bales dropped compared to the 2019-2020 market when 1,614,995 bales were harvested.

Cotton is sold on the futures market, and it has changed dramatically in the last four to five years, Post said.

Inflation is a large factor in farming costs today, he said. “Our major input revolves around oil, a lot of diesel, fertilizers, chemicals and other petroleum-based products.”

The costs of those items have increased faster than consumer products, Post said. “Tractors are up 30 percent, if you can find one.”

Despite the challenges Pima County cotton growers face, Post remains optimistic.

“Marana’s always going to have some kind of agriculture,” he said. “It will be interesting to see where development grows. I don’t think I’d worry about Marana losing its agriculture heritage.”