Arizona farmer says water cutbacks make growing crops difficult: ‘It’s hurting us very bad’

Apr 26, 2022, 4:45 AM | Updated: Apr 28, 2022, 9:33 am

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a five-part series called “KTAR Water Watch,” which will explore the present and future of the water supply across Arizona and metro Phoenix.

CASA GRANDE — Nancy Caywood walks across a field of alfalfa at her family farm in Casa Grande.

Underneath her boots are patches of dry, cracked dirt. The canals on Caywood Farms didn’t get water for months last year because of drought conditions.

“This field went completely dormant,” Caywood said. “It was just crunchy brown to walk out into, and we didn’t know if it would rebound or not.”

Water cutbacks are a constant struggle for Arizona farmers like Caywood. Her fifth-generation family farm gets water from the San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District, which draws water from the Gila River.

The farm is supposed to get up to two acre-feet of water each year. But because of low water levels, the farm has been getting a third of an acre-foot in recent years.

Caywood estimates it takes four acre-feet of water each year to grow alfalfa on the farm and seven to nine acre-feet for cotton. The two water-heavy crops are what her family usually grows. This year, they’re also growing barley.

“We’re just having to choose very carefully when and what to water,” she said. “So we’ve had to take fields out of production because of that.”

Last year, the water cutbacks meant the Caywood family couldn’t grow cotton, which is the main attraction of the tours they offer to visitors from October through March.

Caywood estimates they’ll have to reduce the amount of crops they grow this year by at least 50%. They’re already down to about a third of the alfalfa they usually grow.

“We’re not getting the crops to sell, and so it’s hurting us very bad,” she said, adding this comes as prices for cotton and alfalfa are up. “We’re just hoping for more cuttings, so we can make ends meet.”

Not only is Caywood and her family losing out on profit, they’re still having to pay about $22,000 a year in taxes for water even if the farm doesn’t get a single drop.

Caywood explained it’s part of an agreement the farm has with the San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District.

To cover the water taxes and other mounting expenses, Caywood’s son, Travis Hartman, is growing crops on land he’s leasing near Coolidge and Eloy. But those pieces of land get water from the Central Arizona Project, which is also reducing the amount of water it allocates to farmers.

“Now, with the cutbacks, we’re just not sure what’s going to happen,” Caywood said. “So the picture is sort of grim.”

The San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District is offering farmers a solution to get more water. It’s telling them they can purchase one acre-foot of water from the Central Arizona Project.

But Caywood said her family farm doesn’t qualify because there are no concrete-lined canals that can deliver the water to their fields. She said it could take years for those canals to be built, which she hopes could be paid for with money from the recently approved infrastructure bill.

Signed in November by President Joe Biden, the $1.2 trillion-dollar infrastructure package provides funding for western water infrastructure projects, including repairing aging dams in Arizona.

For now, the Caywood family is looking to diversify the crops they grow and possibly add a pumpkin patch and corn maze to attract more visitors in the fall.

But Caywood admits she’s afraid her family won’t be able to hold on much longer to the farm they’ve owned since 1930. Her grandfather bought the farm and passed it on to her parents, who passed away last year.

“It’s very, very emotional to know my grandad toiled these fields and then to know my dad farmed for so many years, and now we might lose it to a drought,” Caywood said.

Famers nearby have been selling their land to solar companies, because the drought has made it difficult to stay afloat. Caywood stressed she and her family are ruling that out for now.

“We don’t want to become a statistic like that,” she said. “We want to try to hang in there, so we’re going to do the very best we can.”

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Arizona farmer says water cutbacks make growing crops difficult: ‘It’s hurting us very bad’