Urban Areas Encroach On Cotton

By Brent Murphree
Maricopa, Ariz.

In the Western Cotton Belt, cotton acreage has been in decline since the late 1980s. Much of the decline has been due to rapid urbanization in river valleys that support productive land area in the arid desert regions of the West.

Production acres around larger metropolitan areas are most at risk from urban expansion, but land further away from the populated areas also faces change due to additional pressures of food production in the growing Western cities.

Dairies and feedlots have been forced onto productive cotton land to alleviate dust and odor issues as new homes encroach on their territories.

Feed requirements of livestock production facilities impinge on the land that is traditionally used to farm cotton. Many producers can take advantage of the situation by growing feed for silage, but, of course, it pushes cotton out of that field.

In the Las Cruces area of New Mexico, the valley of the Rio Grande River is, at places, only a couple of miles wide. The productive area grows wheat, chilis, vegetables, alfalfa and is home to the largest stand of pecan trees in the United States.

Impact On Eradication Programs

A creeping population has created pockets of homes in rural areas where cotton is grown. Some small fields still exist within the fully urbanized area.

Cotton producers in the valley initiated very successful boll weevil and pink bollworm eradication programs in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Early on, one of the concerns was whether the insect population could be controlled in an urban environment where host plants thrived. In an early National Cotton Council Pink Boll-worm Task Force meeting, one program administrator voiced concern that the program would succeed oreventually fail on the ability to treat those urban fields.

As of 2013, the programs have been exceptionally successful. Partnerships between land-grant universities, USDA and cotton producer-funded projects have led to an essentially boll weevil and pinky-free cotton crop in the West.

Technologies, including pheromone ropes (twist ties that are applied directly to cotton plants), sterile insect release and managed crop protection treatment have helped to make it a success with little impact on the urban environment.

Responding To A Crisis

In the late 1990s, a development issue sent Arizona farmers scrambling. A daycare center was planned in a farming area and would have shut down ag operations if it had opened.

Local producers argued that since they were on the land first they should have approval of any school or child-care facility moving into a farming area. The Arizona legislature changed the law to ensure that farmers have the final say.

Contractually, it is now the responsibility of the builder or developer to get the farm’s approval. The law was challenged on several occasions but upheld in all cases in both Maricopa and Pinal Counties.

Legislative action is a tool that was used on several occasions in New Mexico, Arizona and California to the farmer’s advantage. Producer associations in those states keep close watch on legislative issues affecting producers. And, a few hawk-eyed producers actively track actions relevant to their operations.

Continuing urbanization is in-evitable in the West, but American cotton farmers continue to refine their growing techniques and maintain their influence on matters of policy.

Brent Murphree is the Cotton Board’s Regional Communication Manager for the West and resides in Maricopa, Ariz. Interested parties may contact him at bmurphree@cottonboard.com.

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