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Once booming Arizona cotton industry showing signs it’s struggling

PHOENIX — Adam Hatley and his family have been growing cotton for decades.

“My dad starting farming out here in 1976, and I joined him in 1986,” he said.

Hatley now owns Associated Farms. He grows cotton on about 1,200 acres that he leases from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community east of Scottsdale.

Hatley said he believes cotton, which is one of Arizona’s five C’s, is still a big industry in Arizona. But the once booming industry is now showing signs that it’s struggling.

Cotton planting in Arizona peaked in 1953 at 695,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That number is now down to about 168,000.

It’s also costing more to grow cotton than the profit it’s yielding. The USDA finds on average, one pound of cotton sells for 65 cents, but it takes 83 cents per pound to grow it.

Hatley said the cost to grow cotton is “part of the reason why I’ve cut back on my acres.”

“We used to grow closer to 3,000 acres of cotton,” he said. “But now we’ve diversified with alfalfa and organic leafy greens.”

Still, he has no plans to stop growing cotton. He started this year’s harvest a week ago and hopes to finish by December. His fields are yielding about 1,300 pounds of cotton per acre.

Julie Murphree, outreach director for the Arizona Farm Bureau, said the cotton industry is bringing in $350 million-$500 million to Arizona every year.

“It still makes sense, believe it or not, for our cotton farmers to grow it,” she said.

Murphree pointed to a number of reasons why Arizona farmers continue to grow cotton, including having loans that requires them to plant cotton.

She said the price of cotton also fluctuates from season to season. So while cotton might not be profitable one year, that could change the next year.

“You can’t pivot overnight and just shift to another crop,” Murphree added. “There’s kind of this progression of opportunities that have to take place for a farmer like Adam Hatley to just give up on cotton farming.”

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