'Tough Phase' for Cotton Growers, UA Dean Says
Shane Burgess says they're not water wasters, noting that irrigated farmland in Arizona actually has decreased in recent decades.
Shane Burgess has an answer for those who say it’s time to drop cotton from Arizona’s "five C’s" for the demands it places on water resources.
Not so fast.
Although farmers planted more than 161,000 acres of cotton in Arizona in 2013 — the second-highest total for any crop in the state — irrigated farmland actually has decreased in recent decades with improvements in technology and crop engineering.
That’s not to say that the state’s cotton farmers aren’t concerned. Burgess, dean of the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was the keynote speaker at a recent conference of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association in Flagstaff and picked up on the farmers’ anxiety in the meeting’s one-word theme: "Survival."
"They’re going through a tough phase, but they’ve been through tough phases before," Burgess said. "They’re hoping the cycle will come back up."
Federal officials are saying Arizona’s water deliveries from the Colorado River via the Central Arizona Project may be cut as soon as next year. That doesn’t bode well for agriculture, which uses about 70 percent of the state’s water.
A recent story by the investigative website ProPublica, headlined "Holy Crop," took the position that federal dollars are propping up water-wasting Arizona cotton farmers.
However, Burgess said Gov. Doug Ducey got it right when Ducey said the state’s stewardship of water has been exceptional over the years.
"Water has been important (to Arizona) forever," Burgess said. "It has been the story since the Hoover Dam was built.
"It’s not an all-of-a-sudden problem. This is a well-managed issue in Arizona. But in California, it’s a problem."
The disappearance of the $17.1 billion that agriculture contributes to Arizona’s economy isn’t something residents should be rooting for, Burgess said. For example, Yuma County, where the UA has a strong Cooperative Extension presence, ranks in the top 0.5 percent of U.S. counties in total crop sales — and the top 0.1 percent in vegetable and melon sales and lettuce acreage.
But Arizona farmers are businesspeople first and growers second, Burgess said.
"Their business is land," he said. "They’ll produce whatever is the smartest thing for them. Sometimes that’s cotton. Other times it’s alfalfa, cattle or building houses. They’ll use (the land) for its highest and best use."
Burgess said Cooperative Extension, which has brought UA research into rural communities throughout the state for decades, plays a significant role in agriculture’s infrastructure.
"Agriculture is an industry that uses bio and information technologies," he said. "We take direct risks at the University (in research) that private industry can’t afford to take. If they pay off, industry picks them up, and this directly contributes to Arizona’s economic growth. No other Arizona university does this."
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University of Arizona in the News