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Declining Cotton Cultivation in Maricopa County, Arizona:
An Examination of Macro-and Micro-Scale Driving Forces

Once the dominant location of cotton cultivation within the state of Arizona, Maricopa County has undergone significant changes during recent years, resulting in substantial shifts within the regional agricultural economy. The dramatic decline in cotton over the past nine years has prompted the question, “What have been the major driving forces resulting in the pattern of decline experienced by Maricopa County’s agricultural economy?” As singular explanations of agricultural change are often insufficient, this research employs a methodology that combines macro-scale analysis of underlying (distal) driving forces, with interviews with cotton farmers to reveal how these forces have influenced their decisions through the mediation of other significant micro-scale factors. Pressure from the expansion of Phoenix’s metropolitan region is identified as an important underlying driver of this land use change; however, fluctuations in the international price of cotton and favorable government subsidies are identified as additional key macro-scale influences on the extent of cotton cultivated. Interviews with growers highlight the importance of several micro-scale factors affecting the land use decisions of farmers, including personal perspectives, family situations, and the impact of negative externalities from sprawl on active cultivation. The recent decline in cotton cultivation in Maricopa County is determined to have resulted from a combination of factors, operating at multiple scales, resulting in the conversion of large tracts of farmland to urban developments.

Once the dominant location of cotton cultivation within the state of Arizona, Maricopa County has undergone significant changes during recent years, resulting in substantial shifts within its agricultural economy. Between 1997 and 2005, the total number of acres cultivated in upland cotton, the most common type of cotton, decreased by over 64 percent (NASS 2002). As [End Page 70] a spatially expansive and water-intensive form of agriculture, cotton cultivation can influence the availability of resources such as undeveloped land and established rights to irrigation water. The dramatic decline in the total acreage of cotton not only has significance for the availability of resources, but it also has implications for associated economic sectors and the pattern of development along the urban fringe. While agriculture directly accounts for only a modest percentage of Maricopa County’s total economy, recent changes in the acreage of cotton has implications for a wide range of important economic, social, and environmental concerns, including the preservation of open space and the provision of water resources and infrastructure. The case of Maricopa County is not unique, and the conversion of agricultural lands to other uses has been recognized as a significant research direction within the global environmental change community (IHDP 2005).

Singular explanations of agricultural changes fall short of completely accounting for the range of driving forces underlying the changing opportunities and decision-making paradigms of agriculturalists. The substantial loss of acreage planted in cotton, and the particularities of the decline, pose interesting questions regarding recent changes in the agricultural economy of Maricopa County. The rate of cotton decline for the county has been irregular, with losses following the 1997 and 2001 seasons accounting for much of the total decline (Figure 1).

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Figure 1.

Recent changes in the acreage of cotton and alfalfa cultivated in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Comparing the changes experienced within the county to the state totals, it is clear that the county accounts for much of the total decline, and that the area planted in cotton within Maricopa County has remained stagnant [End Page 71] during recent periods of acreage increases for the state. The decline of a crop once dominant on the landscape of Maricopa County begs the question, “What factors account for this land use change?” As significant changes have occurred recently, this paper focuses on the time period 1997–2005, as it is inclusive of the two previous agricultural censuses (1997 and 2002) while also including recently available agricultural data.

No single causal factor accounts for the declining acreage of cotton in Maricopa County; many factors must be taken into account to understand and explain the recent changes in the agricultural economy of the county. It is hypothesized that the reduction in total cotton acreage is indicative of wider land use changes within the county, hinting at the economic shift away from agriculture, toward expansive commercial and residential developments. Such changes are believed to reflect broad economic and social changes occurring amid globalization. Increased urbanization is hypothesized to be the underlying driving force propelling the sustained decline in cotton agriculture in Maricopa County. This paper rejects the a priori application of economic land valuation to explain land use change as it fails to fully account for the pattern of land use conversion witnessed. The specific manner in which urbanization has impacted the extent of the agriculture practiced within Maricopa County encompasses a range of macro- and micro-scale forces that have mediated urban expansion through into agricultural land. Additionally, an appreciation for the implications of these changes requires an awareness of the human-environment connections internal to land use change amid urban expansion.

Cultural and Political Ecology (CAPE) is employed as a general approach for examining land use change, as its focus entails the consideration of multiple scales of human influences alongside the natural environment. While other approaches recognize the importance of considering multi-scalar interaction, CAPE research forwards the perspective that local land users can have a significant impact on regional patterns of land use change through interactions with a dynamic and multi-scalar socioeconomic and environmental landscape (Bryant and Bailey 1997; Vayda and Walters 1999). Lacking a single unifying theory, CAPE is most commonly employed more as an approach to research that considers the linked and dynamic human environmental system. In this research, CAPE theoretically informs the selection of macro- and micro-scale driving forces to be studied, while also providing a general framework of interaction between these multi-scale forces. Macro-scale driving forces are conceived of as distal drivers of change, [End Page 72] ultimately feeding back to the actual changes in land use manifested in the urban expansion of Phoenix into its agricultural fringe. The study of micro-scale driving forces is also valued within the CAPE framework, as they are often viewed as proximate drivers of land use change that mediate and alter distal drivers of land use change.

This exploration of agricultural land conversion is initiated through a consideration of the theoretical literature on land use valuation, as it remains a dominant mode of explanation for land use change. Additionally, the concept of sprawl is also considered as the land use changed studied is characterized by expansion along the urban fringe. I embrace the definition of sprawl provided in the Dictionary of Human Geography (Johnston et al. 2000:783):

[The] extension of relatively low density urban uses into rural areas, usually alongside main roads…so that conversion of plots to urban uses creates enclaves of agricultural land in which farmers may suffer negative externalities through the impact of neighboring activities.

The particular case for sprawl within Maricopa County is addressed by considering the recent economic development of the Phoenix metropolitan region. Expansion of the metropolitan area is then considered alongside other significant macro- and micro-scale driving forces influencing changes in the extent and distribution of cotton cultivation. The consideration of various scales of influence, as well as the employment of an interview-based approach, is deemed to provide a robust understanding of the range of influences driving recent changes in the agricultural economy. This multi-scale explanation provides a depth of understanding beyond what is possible for studies that rely solely on economic land valuation and changes in the global economy to account for agricultural land conversion and land use change.

An Overview of Cotton and Its Legacy in Arizona

The history of cotton cultivation, and the myriad irrigation projects undertaken within Arizona, has been expertly documented by Sheridan (1995) in his historical political ecology of the state. Cultivating cotton in the arid Sonoran desert of central Arizona would be impossible without irrigation water, and this water could not have been provided to cultivators without massive economic assistance from the federal government. Cotton has experienced both boom and bust in the past, particularly with regard to the [End Page 73] long staple cotton demanded by tire manufactures during the First World War (Sheridan 1995). While the acreage planted in long staple (Pima) cotton has all but disappeared as a result of changes in tire manufacturing, upland cotton has continued to be cultivated throughout the state, as it is used in the manufacturing of common textiles. Today nearly all cotton grown in the U.S. is exported, as most domestic textile mills have closed or moved overseas with the globalization of the textile sector. Mexico has traditionally been a dominant destination for Arizona’s cotton harvest; however, China’s economic growth and vibrant textile sector is recognized as the most important factor determining international fluctuations in the demand for U.S. cotton (NASS 2002).

Cotton is an intensive crop in nearly every sense of the word. Cultivating cotton requires careful land preparation, a substantial amount of water, concerted effort to keep the weeds at bay, and precise timing to pick the cotton before it is damaged or soiled—both of which can greatly impact the final value of the crop (AZ Cooperative Extension 2007). These demands mean that any serious endeavor to grow cotton is, by necessity, capital-intensive, labor-demanding, and dependent on a bit of luck with regard to the determination of agricultural prices during harvest. Specialized equipment is required for the harvesting of cotton, expensive seed and agricultural inputs are required to increase the chance of an acceptable yield, and access to ginning operations must be arranged. Cotton also quickly consumes natural resources, reducing soil fertility when not grown as part of a balanced crop rotation. Additionally, its water demand is second only to alfalfa, at over four acre-feet of water per cultivated acre, as cultivated in Maricopa County (Chhetri 2006).

The potential for significant profits during good years entices the farmers who choose to make cotton their principal field crop. However, even when the potential for profit is low, cotton is cultivated as part of a balanced crop rotation—helping to manage pest and weed problems while also maintaining soil fertility. Traditional crop rotation patterns that included cotton frequently cultivate it for two straight years following three years of alfalfa. After cotton, a third, one-year crop is usually grown before returning to alfalfa and cotton. This long-established pattern of agriculture is in transition in Maricopa County as cotton cultivation has precipitously declined during recent years, calling into question the function and character of the agricultural fringe in the Phoenix metropolitan region. [End Page 74]

Study Area

Maricopa County covers approximately 10,000 square miles of central Arizona’s Sonoran desert. The arid climate of the region has provided both advantages and challenges to human settlement (Sheridan 1995). The warm, dry climate averages annual mean maximum temperatures of 26°C and only 20 cm of precipitation (Gammage 1999). The agricultural potential of the valley was recognized early on, as it promised an abundance of sun, providing a hot summer and long growing season. The lack of precipitation, however, had to be overcome through federal funding of irrigation projects to harness and redirect the flow of the region’s major rivers under the ideological motivations of reclaiming what was viewed as the marginal arid lands of the West (Sheridan 1995). Today, the county’s agricultural lands are cultivated in a variety of crops, most having a total acreage too small to be counted individually (NASS 2002). Despite recent declines, cotton remains one of the top crops, with 16 percent of all the agricultural land dedicated to its cultivation. However, barley and alfalfa hay are the dominant crop types in the county, with alfalfa hay only recently surpassing cotton in total acreage cultivated (Figure 1).

The most pervasive influence within Maricopa County is the Phoenix metropolitan region, which includes 25 incorporated cities in the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG). The population of the MAG region grew at a robust rate of 40.6 percent during the 1990s and has accelerated to 44.8 percent since 2000. Phoenix surpassed 3.25 million residents during the 1990s, and its population is projected to rise nearly 70 percent over the next 20 years (MAG 2006). Most of the growth is driven by in-migration from other parts of the U.S. due to employment opportunities, lower costs of living, and a favorable climate (Gober 1998; MAG 2006). Future growth will drive a significant expansion of the urban infrastructure, commercial developments, and residential subdivision (Zoellner 2001; MAG 2006). This expansive growth will continue to push the urban fringe of the Phoenix metropolitan region outward as its automobile-oriented urbanization leads to further sprawl (Gober et al. 1998; Zoellner 2001; Gober and Burns 2002; MAG 2006).

Theoretical Understandings of Land Valuation and Sprawl

The study of rural land conversion at the urban fringe has traditionally been spread across several different research areas, including urban and rural studies, agricultural geography, and economic geography (Hasse and Lathrop 2003 [End Page 75] ). A common thread among the various approaches to rural land conversion has been a focus on agricultural land valuation, sometimes to the exclusion of other significant influence on rural land use change. Beginning with a definition of rural lands, this section attempts to summarize the prevailing focus on land valuation and attempts to indicate how a multi-scalar CAPE perspective can inform a deeper understanding of the nuances of land use change along the urban fringe.

Consideration of land use change associated with a loss of rural lands to sprawling urbanization must begin with a definition of “rural lands.” While on the surface a seemingly simple task, defining rural lands has proven challenging for researchers seeking a single and universally applicable definition. Hite (1997) proposed the concept that rural lands have little meaning without reference to that which is urban. In this manner, rural and urban are mutually constitutive opposites, implying that any change in one necessitates a change in the other.

The expansion of urban development into rural lands has sparked concern within the rural studies community that this process will consume environmentally and socially critical agricultural lands in the permanency of suburban developments (Roberts 1995; Hasse and Lathrop 2003; Mariola 2005). Initially, it was feared that the loss of agricultural land to urbanization would hamstring the country’s agricultural potential. The concern then shifted from the amount of farmland lost to the possibility of losing the highest quality farmland. Such concerns were also short lived, given the extent of total U.S. cropland available and the lack of correlation between land prices, soil fertility, or any other biophysical measure of agricultural potential (Hart 1991). More recently, the farmland preservation movement has unsuccessfully relied upon arguments of productive capacity and economic returns to muster support for preserving rural areas from sprawling urban expansion (Mariola 2005). The favoring of economic arguments for rural land preservation may be intended to speak to the common perception within free-market economies that land use changes necessarily represent a progression to the “best and highest” uses—meaning those that produce a higher economic value in the near term (Shi, Phipps, and Colyer 1997, p. 92). The unsuccessful reliance on a rational economic concept of land use by rural preservationists is significant, as it harkens to the foundational principles and theories of land valuation and speaks to the frequent domination of this perspective in studies of land use change. [End Page 76]

Interestingly, the foundation of agricultural location theory shares the same heritage as urban morphology and land use studies, as they all reference the same early studies of land valuation within the social sciences (Duram and Archer 2003; Keys et al. 2007). Johann Heinrich von Thünen (1966) first deduced that locational attributes were a principle source of land rent values, as distance would cause a differentiation of land uses from a center market based on increasing transportation costs (O’Kelly and Bryan 1996). This research has frequently been employed to explain the location and transition of land uses as a process tied directly to changes in land valuation (Keys et al. 2007). The received wisdom on land use change from the land valuation perspective is that such changes are driven almost completely by rising land values. Increasing land values near urban areas are believed to entice farmers to sell their property for significantly higher immediate values than is obtainable through several years of cultivation (Livanis et al. 2006). Those who are dependent on agricultural leases are pushed farther afield as the rising cost of land excludes all but the higher-value urban uses, often resulting in low-density residential and commercial developments (Hart 1991; Theobald 2001).

Hart (1991) characterized the process of rural land conversion as the “perimetropolitan bow wave,” since its unrelenting press plows irregularly through rural agricultural lands until finally all agriculture production succumbs to urban expansion. As Hart’s reference to irregularities suggests, not all land holders respond uniformly to the economics of changing land valuation as predicted by agricultural and urban location theory (Hart 1991; Halseth 1995; Ilbery and Hornby 1983). Irregularities in the development of the urban fringe stem from individual decisions of landholders blessed and cursed with the opportunity of selling land to developers amid a changing economic and social landscape. Additionally, varying perceptions of the rural way of life and familial connections to continued farming have factored into the decision-making paradigms of many cotton cultivators in Maricopa County.

Recent research into land use changes within this region has revealed the persistent loss of agricultural land, particularly from traditionally rural areas located within 35 km of the central business district of Phoenix (Keys et al. 2007). This research adds to the understanding of the expansion of urbanization for the Phoenix metropolitan region by addressing the specific macro- and micro-scale influences that have driven this conversion of agricultural land to sprawling urban developments. The perspective of [End Page 77] neoclassical economic bid-rent theory and location theory are shown to be insufficient to describe more recent, fine-scale fluctuations in the acreage of cotton cultivated in Maricopa County. Understanding such changes requires a comprehension of the decision-making process of the cotton farmers within their socioeconomic and environmental context. This research offers a robust understanding of the process of land use change along the urban fringe of a major metropolitan area and also provides insights into the impacts such changes are having on the farming families that have been cultivating cotton for generations near the Phoenix metropolitan region (Ilbery and Hornby 1983; Hart 1998).


This research borrows methodologically from Cultural and Political Ecology (CAPE) by stressing a multi-scale analysis of land use change, drawing upon theoretically informed perspectives of macro-scale influences while recognizing the agency of individual farmers to manipulate their circumstances in response to micro-scale factors (Bryant and Bailey 1997; Bebbington and Batterbury 2001). Macro-scale driving forces are therefore conceived of as distal drivers of land use decisions, encompassing the political-economic and cultural institutions that shape the opportunities and constrain the choices of individuals, households, and organizations such as family farm corporations (Watts 1983; Zimmerer and Bassett 2003).

The research approach advocated by CAPE adds a further dimension of understanding by considering the influences of micro-scale driving forces in tandem with the macro-scale influences. These forces are viewed as proximate drivers of land use decisions, mediating the sometimes-heavy influences of the aforementioned macro-scale forces (Geist and Lambin 2002). Micro-scale forces operate on the individual/farm scale and are conceived of as those factors influencing how individuals might manipulate their own situations within the ecological, institutional, and cultural framework in which they are located (Bryant and Bailey 1997). No simple combination of proximate forces have combined with changes in the distal drivers of change to produce the pattern of agricultural land use change witnessed in Maricopa County. Nevertheless, an examination of several principal macro- and micro-scale forces demonstrates the significant challenges to cotton cultivation in the county while also providing a range of opportunities, resulting in the cumulative loss of cotton acreage within Maricopa County. [End Page 78]

Macro-scale Influences

I hypothesize three principle macro-scale influences operating on Arizona’s cotton growers that have contributed to forming the recent pattern of cotton cultivation in Maricopa County. These factors include: changes in the macroeconomics of global cotton price and demand; infrastructure and institutional support for cotton growers; and the incessant press of population- driven urbanization. Each of these factors has at times both discouraged and encouraged the expansion of cotton in the county, so each is explored through an analysis of the available data, interviews with experts, and secondary sources. Taken together, their total impact is deemed to have had a negative influence on the total acreage of cotton planted in Maricopa County during recent years.

Expert opinions regarding declining cotton cultivation were obtained through interviews with government officials and researchers involved in agriculture within the state of Arizona, including: the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Maricopa County Agricultural Center, and Maricopa County Extension Services. A standardized interview protocol was employed, investigating the role of the institutions represented by those officials interviewed with regard to agriculture, their own perceptions of agricultural change within Maricopa County, and their understanding of agricultural land conversion. Using the same protocol, I also interviewed an official of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association in order to better understand their role in cotton agriculture and the impacts that the decline of cotton is having on their organization.

Micro-scale Influences

The failure of macro-scale factors and agricultural location theory to account for the real-world decisions of cotton growers suggests that their own personal experiences and perceptions be taken into account. Hart (1998: 13) has stated, “The best way to understand farms is to talk to the people who are trying to make a living by farming.” His strong endorsement of engaged, human-oriented fieldwork is a voice of experience from many years of research in agricultural geography, and this resonates with the interview-based research methodologies that prevail within CAPE. This research therefore relies heavily on interviews with cotton growers in Maricopa County to uncover and understand the micro-scale influences that shape their annual decisions to plant cotton. Interviews with farmers also employed a standardized interview protocol developed to gain insights [End Page 79] into the experiences, decisions, and perceptions of those involved in the cultivation of cotton. While these interviews touched on influences at both the macro- and micro-scales, their primary value resides in the insights provided regarding the mediating influence of certain micro-scale factors and the resulting pattern of land use. Their impressions of urbanization and its impacts are particularly relevant to identifying significant micro-scale influences.

Though it is not my intent to fully analyze farmer-specific decision making, individual choices made by farmers are the actual manifestation of Hart’s “bow wave,” as not all farmers simply respond to rising land prices in the same manner. Other factors, such as maintaining patterns of crop rotation for soil fertility and pest management, feelings of environmental stewardship, desire to maintain the farming way of life, and the potential to pass on the farm to future generations, are all considerations that influence the decisions of farmers. Such factors are largely overlooked by the macro-scale influences listed earlier and are best captured through interviews with the growers in Maricopa County.

As of 2002, only 95 farms were cultivating cotton in Maricopa County, down from 185 in 1997 and 297 in 1992 (NASS 2002). It is fair to assume that the number has continued to decline since 2002, meaning that the small size of the current population obviates random sampling techniques for selecting a sample of cotton farmers. Instead, I attempted to gather a representative sample of 10 farmers based on farm size, with each interview representing a unique farm. Unfortunately, privacy concerns prevent any comprehensive list of cotton farmers from being published by knowledgeable organizations. More-recent concerns over the largess of agricultural subsidies and their potential impacts on the environment and conservation programs have led the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to assemble a comprehensive list of all U.S. farmers who have received subsidy payments. In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, this data has been made available to the public through a searchable, Web-based database (EWG 2007). Assuming a general correlation between the amount of cotton subsidy received and the acreage planted, I utilized their Web-based farm subsidy database to randomly select farmers for interviews from a range of farm sizes.

Standard snowball sampling techniques were also employed, allowing replacement of those farmers that declined to be interviewed or could not be contacted. Additionally, referrals from the institutional interviews conducted earlier were added to the pool of contacts. Interviews with cotton farmers [End Page 80] were sought through this combination of methods until 10 interviews, representing over 10 percent of the farmers and 15 percent of the acreage in cotton, were collected. The final analysis of the results includes descriptive statistics alongside qualitative analysis.

Macroeconomics of Global Cotton Prices and Demand

Variations in the price of cotton have had a substantial impact on changes in cotton cultivation in Arizona. The price of cotton varies considerably with different geographic markets and is constantly changing throughout the year. This makes attributing changes in cotton cultivation to any single number for the year a challenging process. Average annual cotton prices (cents/lb) are commonly considered an acceptable gauge of the market conditions and are tracked over the years by the USDA NASS (2005). Interviews with knowledgeable professionals and cotton growers confirm the understanding that the price of cotton impacts their decisions regarding the number of acres planted with cotton, and it may even influence them to sell agricultural land or adjust the total size of their leased lands. As cotton is harvested once at the end of its season, with a possible second harvest shortly thereafter, the price obtained for the harvest is dependent on the market price near the end of the year. Responses to market fluctuations therefore commonly carry over into the next agricultural season, impacting the total acreage of cotton cultivated with a one-year lag. Examining recent fluctuations in the world price of cotton, its is clear that poor market prices have some correlation to the declining acreage of cotton, particularly in 1998, 2002, and 2005 (Figure 2).

An examination of the Arizona Cotton Reports from recent years reveals that fluctuations in the annual price of cotton are understood to have been due to changes in the global demand and supply of cotton (CALSmart 2006). The significant slide in cotton prices through 2001 are attributed to rising global stocks of cotton, with price recovery following more-recently declining stocks of cotton as well as favorable future projections of market demand (CALSmart 2006).

With over 75 percent of U.S. cotton exported, the price of cotton on the world market is a significant determinant of the cotton prices affecting growers in Maricopa County. Arizona growers are particularly susceptible to variations in global demand, as over 80 percent of the state’s production is exported, with Mexico and China serving as the most common export [End Page 81] markets for Arizona cotton (CALSmart 2006). The globalization of the cotton industry has provided significant benefits to cotton growers in Arizona, particularly with regard to the implementation of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the future market potential of China, and the recently enacted Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA).

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Figure 2.

Correlation between price and cultivated acreage of cotton.

The passage of NAFTA directly resulted in Mexico’s removing all tariffs on cotton imports in 1998, helping solidify Mexico as the largest export market for U.S. cotton. The USDA estimates that 6 to 15 percent of the export growth to Mexico in recent years can be attributed to the passage of NAFTA (Ayer and Frisvold 1999). While China vacillates between being a major global exporter and importer of cotton, the potential for long-term future growth in the demand for cotton has been identified as an important enticement to Arizona’s cotton growers. Such growth is predicated upon the success of global trade agreements to reduce non-tariffas well as tariff barriers to China’s cotton market (Ayer and Fisvold 1999; Larson 1999). In addition, DR-CAFTA has the potential of reducing current trade barriers and permanently alleviating tariffs on markets that are estimated to be worth $73.1 million to U.S. cotton growers (FAS 2006). [End Page 82]

Lastly, interviews with professionals and farmers involved in cotton production suggest that favorable prices for other crops with high-demand domestic markets, particularly alfalfa, may explain the reduction in total acreage of cotton. Examining the changes in the total acreage of alfalfa hay cultivated in Maricopa County does show a gradual growth during the study period; however, the totals do not appear to support the conclusion that cotton farmers have simply traded field crops (Figure 2). Additionally, the USDA NASS estimated that the 2002 total acreage in farms for the State of Arizona had decreased by 15 percent from 1997 (NASS 2002). The loss in total farm acreage in Maricopa County during the same period was over 24 percent (NASS 2002). These numbers indicate that, while some land has probably moved from cotton to alfalfa, the loss of cotton acreage has been a part of a general decline in the extent of agriculture within the county.

Infrastructure and Institutional Support for Cotton

Cotton growers in Arizona enjoy a wide range of support from the federal government and from private institutions that have played an important role in helping agriculturalists remain competitive in global cotton markets. The support of the federal government has been among the most significant influences, allowing cotton and other agricultural products to be successfully cultivated in the arid climate of the state through funding of irrigation projects, agricultural research, and the provisioning of subsidies to protect farmers from detrimental dips in the price of cotton. Much of this investment in services and infrastructure has directly benefited farmers in Maricopa and the surrounding counties (Sheridan 1995). Specifically, the relatively low cost of irrigation water provided by government-subsidized irrigation projects has greatly benefited cotton growers, given the above-average water demands of cotton. Despite the arid climate of the region, few farmers expressed concerns that continued drought conditions would adversely impact their operations in the near term, perhaps an indication of the faith placed in the technological harnessing of the region’s water resources. Discussions with farmers did reveal, however, their concern that water costs could begin to rise in response to increasing urban water demands driven by a growing Phoenix metropolitan region.

Federal support for research and extension services continues to benefit the dwindling number of cotton growers in Maricopa County. Interviews with the county extension services and a retired agricultural researcher highlight the range of assistance that cotton growers and other agriculturalists [End Page 83] receive from both federal and state-funded programs. The agricultural and extension centers for the county list a range of programs and services provided to growers to help them improve cultivation techniques, quickly adopt recent innovations, diagnose problems, interact with insurance companies, and collaboratively discuss their challenges. Such a range of services far exceeds those made available to farmers in other parts of the world, allowing cotton growers in Maricopa County to maintain a higher yield of a better-quality cotton lint than would otherwise be possible.

Along the same lines, private institutions and companies have also played a key role in assisting U.S. cotton farmers to compete in a global market. The development of genetically modified cotton (Bt. Cotton) has been cited by a number of farmers and other sources as having allowed growers to more successfully avoid crop losses due to pests while also diminishing much of the need for repeated application of costly chemical sprays (Milius 2003; UCSD 2007). Additionally, private research labs recently developed a cotton that is unaffected by herbicides, allowing farmers to replace expensive and dusty weed tillage with a single application of sprayed weed killer (CALSmart 2006). The adoption of cutting-edge technology (genetically modified cotton and precisely tuned pesticides/herbicides) within agriculture has increased the up-front costs of agricultural inputs and other capital expenditures with the promise of increasing profits at the end of the season. Such advances have afforded farmers greater control over the cultivation of cotton, securing a reliable harvest of high-quality cotton that is resistant to damaging pests.

Of particular importance to growers in Maricopa County has been the service of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association. This organization has represented the interests of cotton growers since 1944 through a board of 56 members elected from districts throughout the state. This institution has been successful in helping farmers gain a collective political voice from which they can influence the formation of agricultural policy and secure continued institutional support at the state and federal level. An interview with the organization’s leadership revealed that there has been a noticeable decline in membership in recent years. However, a persistently high rate of participation (90 percent of the 409 farms in the state) among cotton growers remains a point of strength (NASS 2002). The influence garnered by such high participation numbers helps the Arizona Cotton Growers to promote favorable federal subsidy policies that provide significant economic protections to growers during global price fluctuations. [End Page 84]

Favorable cotton subsidies are widely acknowledged as an important factor helping to support the cultivation of cotton within Maricopa County. Arizona farmers received over $678 million in cotton subsidies between 1995 and 2005, with Maricopa County accounting for a disproportionate 61.3 percent of the subsidies received, despite the fact that its share of the total acreage of cotton dropped from 36.4 percent in 1997 to just 18.3 percent in 2005. A few different federal programs contribute to the total subsidy figures for cotton, including: Market Loss Assistance (MLA), which provides supplemental payments when cotton prices drop below production costs; Production Flexibility Contract (PFC), which gives subsidies to farmers based on historic production levels with the intent of assisting in adapting to market changes; and Loan Deficiency Payments (LDP), which provides additional assistance to farmers when market price drop below 51.92 cents/ lb (Ayer, Frisvold and Tronstad 1999). While such subsidies have certainly helped some farmers in Maricopa County to continue growing cotton, the decoupling of subsidies from current cotton production has allowed farmers to collect cotton subsidies without planting any cotton (Ayer, Frisvold, and Tronstad 1999). Agricultural subsidies, therefore, cannot be assumed to result simply in the stabilization of the level of production. Information gathered from interviews with farmers reveals that the possibility of receiving subsidy payments without any cotton cultivation has led many farmers to more freely reduce their operation and/or switch to other, more profitable crops. Overall, the farmers interviewed believe that the subsidies have slowed the loss of acreage in cotton and helped many operations weather unfavorable cotton price fluctuations.

Urbanization in the Phoenix Metropolitan Region

Urbanization has provided both the financial incentive “pull factor” and the negative externalities “push factor” that have served as the underlying macro-scale driving force accounting for much of loss of farmland within Maricopa County. This has held true for cotton as its dominant historic acreage and recent poor world price have made it particularly vulnerable to land speculators seeking to acquire farmland with water rights located near the urban fringe. Increasing demand for housing and Arizona’s water laws are both significant factors contributing to the conversion of agricultural land to urban uses (Keys et al. 2007).

The MAG population projection already cited indicates that a robust demand for new housing stock, proximate commercial properties, and [End Page 85] requisite infrastructure will continue to result in the rapid conversion of agricultural land to urban land uses for several more years. Demand for low-density housing away from the city center manifests itself in the sprawling development of the urban fringe on lands that used to serve as agricultural fields. Thus far there has been little indication that higher-density living will become available to the middle-income bracket of the Phoenix metropolitan region (Zoellner 2001). Instead, the region continues to develop in the well-documented automobile-oriented pattern resembling that of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and many other post-industrial revolution growth cities (Keys et al. 2007).

Keys et al. (2007) found that Arizona’s groundwater management act, requiring new developments to identify a secure source for water without leading to additional groundwater mining, have had a significant impact on the pattern of land use change over the past 30 years. Utilizing a sample of study areas, the researchers found that of the 54 percent of the land that was in agriculture in 1970, 38.1 percent was transformed to residential and another 10 percent to commercial uses (Keys et al. 2007). They also found that the decline in total agricultural land resulted in a decline in the average field size and an increase in agricultural land fragmentation within the Phoenix metropolitan region (Keys et al. 2007). While this study did not include some of the more-recently impacted agricultural land in the west valley MAG cities of Buckeye, Avondale, and Surprise, and the east valley MAG city of Queen Creek, their findings do strongly support the contention that urbanization has had a principal role in the declining acreage of cotton in Maricopa County.

This conclusion is further reinforced through an examination of morphological changes between historic land use maps developed by the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) for the years 1995 and 2000 (Moritz et al. 1998; Kunda and Redman 2005). The data show the spread of the urbanized portions of the city in all directions, with notable expansions in development in the areas west and southeast of the urban center. It is readily apparent that a significant concentration of new residential units is being developed on land that was classified as agricultural in 2000. As asserted elsewhere, this pattern most likely represents a favoring of open lands possessing adequate services such as access to roads, available water, and existing sewer infrastructure (Keys et al. 2007). Interviews with farmers and agricultural professionals indicated that the land speculation after 2004 resulted in a rapid rise in the price investors were willing to pay [End Page 86] to acquire farmland. The more recent cooling of the housing market, however, has reduced the pressure to sell agricultural land to investors, even prompting some builders to reevaluate their land holdings (Creno 2007). Population pressure and a growing regional economy will continue to drive the conversion of farmland to suburban sprawl unless drastic changes to the urban morphology of the Phoenix metropolitan region is undertaken.

Micro-scale Factors

Interviews with a sample of cotton growers were conducted to understand the experiences, decisions, and perceptions influencing recent, fine-scale changes in the total acreage of cotton cultivated in Maricopa County. Ten farmers, representing 10 different family owned cotton growing operations, were interviewed as part of the research. With a combined 6,435 acres of cotton planted during the 2006 season, the sample farms accounted for approximately 15 percent of the total area planted in cotton that ranged in size from 60 to 2,300 acres of planted cotton. The sample had an average size of 643.5 acres, with a median of 537.5 acres. The farmers interviewed cultivated land at several locations throughout the cities of the MAG.

General questions touching on the background of those interviewed in farming revealed that all but one were second-generation farmers, with a few tracing their family’s farming operations in Maricopa County to four or five generations. All attributed their choice in profession to the influence of growing up around farming and the opportunity to inherit or take a share in the family farm. When asked what they would list as the greatest benefits to being a farmer, the most common responses were the enjoyment of watching things grow and the generally favorable way of life (Figure 3).

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Figure 3.

The most commonly cited benefits to farming as a way of life.

It is important to note that economic benefits did not make the list of reasons for any of those interviewed. When asked directly to characterize the economic benefits to farming, most felt them to be generally poor—believing that there were many other ways to get a better return on the same investment. It was also communicated that it is hard to make a living if [End Page 87] you did not own your own land outright, as a mortgage or rent increased production costs and were a substantial drain on profits. This insight was particularly relevant given that many farmers have sold portions of their land to development investors, only to temporarily lease these lands back in the near term.

Questions probing the background and perspectives of the growers indicate the influence of economic factors on farming behavior, while at the same time giving important insights into the mediating influence of non-economic factors. When asked if they agreed with the statement that farmers base their decisions solely on economic factors, 60 percent of the sample did agree with the statement. Since the question was open-ended, most qualified their agreement with additional considerations that influence their decisions. These included considerations for maintaining soil fertility, long-term environmental health, emotional ties to farming as a way of life, and the current needs and future expectations for their families. These qualifications, when considered alongside the 40 percent that outright disagreed with the statement, demonstrate that cotton farmers consider a range of non-economic factors for cropping decisions despite the obvious economic pressures on agricultural operations.

When asked how last year’s acreage in cotton compared with the acreage 5 and 10 years ago, four farmers responded that they had decreased their acreage by over 75 percent and an additional four had reduced their cultivation 25 to 75 percent. These responses provide strong evidence that the reduction in cotton cultivated in Maricopa County has been shared by many of the cultivators and is not attributable to just a few growers or a small subgroup of farmers departing the county. When queried as to the most important factors determining the number of acres planted in cotton, most responded that the favorable price of other crops was a significant factor, but land availability ranked a close second (Figure 4).

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Figure 4.

The most commonly cited influences determining acreage cultivated in cotton.

However, as was stated before, comparing the decline of cotton in Maricopa County to the modest rise in acreage in alfalfa, it becomes clear that changing crop types cannot account for the [End Page 88] total decline in cotton. Between 1997 and 2002, the county lost more than 75,000 acres of harvested cropland, with the decline in cotton accounting for over 80 percent of that loss (NASS 2002). This statistic affirms that the loss of acreage in cotton represents a significant proportion of the county’s total loss of agricultural land. The difficulty finding available land that can be cultivated economically near the urban area has forced many farms to seek land away from the fringe of the Phoenix metropolitan region.

Probing current cotton operators reveals that most had changed the location of their cotton fields in addition to reducing the total acreage planted in cotton during recent years. Six farmers had moved some of their cotton operations to Gila Bend and other areas of Maricopa County well away from current development pressures. Three farmers moved their operations out of the county, with one of those relocating some of his cotton cultivation to another state. Two farmers indicated that they had not moved the general location of their cotton fields, and two others indicated that they recently made the decision to no longer cultivate cotton. These changes are closely related to the declining levels of cotton cultivated in Maricopa County, as the out-migration of farmers is as important as declining production levels in accounting for the reduction in the acreage of cotton cultivated. All farmers indicated that development pressures from the Phoenix metropolitan region motivated these changes. Exploring these pressures and appreciating their influence entails identifying the micro-scale influences on cotton growers and connecting them to the macro-scale driving forces discussed earlier.

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Figure 5.

The most commonly cited negative externalities of urban sprawl on existing cotton growing operations.

In addition to directly impacting the availability and affordability of land, urban sprawl also impacts nearby agricultural lands through a variety of negative externalities (Johnston et al. 2000). The most prevalent difficulties cited by cotton farmers cultivating near urban developments were public complaints against dust and the spraying of crops, and the difficulty of moving farm equipment due to increased automobile traffic on public roads (Figure 5). [End Page 89]

These problems were cited by some of the farmers as directly influencing changes such as switching a particular cotton field to alfalfa, as this crop requires much less on-site work and no dust-causing tillage. Additionally, several cited the desire to consolidate land for greater efficiency as an influence motivating them to move cotton agriculture away from residential developments. The frequency with which vandalism was cited also ranked it as a significant negative externality of proximate residential development. The vandalism cited included driving over planted fields, stealing equipment, damaging equipment, and even burning harvested crops.

The expansion of the Phoenix metropolitan region is a fundamental driving force underlying the rearrangement of cotton farms and the decline in the total acreage during recent years. When asked directly about recent land sales, all farmers interviewed had sold land during the past eight years to investors seeking properties for residential and commercial developments. Questioning what the most important factors were in making the decision to sell land, most responded that the favorable land prices they were offered held sway over their decisions. The reasons they cited for taking the offer, however, went beyond the immediate economics of the amount of money they were offered. All cited their family situation as being the underlying reason they took the offer when they did and at the price they did. Six of the 10 said they sold the land to reinvest the money in agriculture farther afield in order to pass the farm on to future generations. Another two of those interviewed indicated that they sold the land because their age would limit how much longer they could farm and they did not have any children interested in continuing the business. Such responses speak to the multi-generational farming background shared by nearly all of those cotton farmers interviewed. As was expressed by one of the participants, the decision to sell when one does is “a personal decision.” While that decision must make economic sense, it is also tempered by the circumstances of the farming family and the possibility of continuing to pass on the family farm. On more than one occasion, the feeling was expressed that without children interested in farming, they would have already cashed in on the farm and quit the business—potentially confounding the identification of a single land value that, when reached, would result in the conversion of agricultural land to urban land uses. Additionally, negative externalities associated with sprawl were cited by several farmers as having stripped much of the joy from farming. Returning to the list of benefits of farming as a way of life, a lack of family interest in the farming way of life and declining enjoyment from [End Page 90] farming would inflict serious blows to the perceived benefits of those who cultivate cotton in Maricopa County. While it is difficult to quantify the impact such perceptions have had on determining the timing and price at which cotton growers decide to sell their operations, the influence of such micro-scale driving forces in reducing the total acreage of cotton in the county is undeniable.


I have identified a number of factors accounting for the recent decline in the cultivation of cotton in Maricopa County. The factors explored illustrate that a complex range of influences, beyond simple land valuation economics, are driving recent changes in the agricultural economy of the county. The influences explored include changes in the macro-economics of global cotton price and demand, infrastructure and institutional support, the incessant press of urbanization, and a micro-scale examination of the experiences, decisions, and perceptions of cotton growers in the county. Each factor has at times provided both opportunities and challenges to growers in the county; however, their sum total impact on the cultivation of cotton has been negative in recent years.

The persistently unfavorable economic climate for cotton, despite continual institutional support, has led many cotton growers to reduce their acreage of cotton. In addition, the relentless press of urbanization to acquire agricultural lands along the Phoenix metropolitan region’s fringe has provided an opportunity for many to leave farming or to reinvest farther afield from development and under more favorable economic circumstances. While this factor most closely relates to the land valuation literature reviewed earlier, the decision to sell a particular field to developers has been shown to reflect the influences of micro-scale factors such as the negative externalities of existing development and the interest of children in continuing the family farm. Additionally, as hypothesized by CAPE researchers, cotton growers have clearly sought to manipulate macro-scale influences such as the conditions for subsidy assistance, institutional support, and rising land prices to maximize their benefit. As a result, the decision to sell agricultural land to developers cannot be simply conceived of as a loss of agricultural land to urban land uses. While it is true that the sale of agricultural land often represents the first step in the permanent consumption of productive farmland in urban sprawl, several of the farmers interviewed have used the profits from such land sales to reinvest in agricultural land outside of the [End Page 91] Phoenix metropolitan region—representing a geographic dislocation from the traditional cotton growing regions of Maricopa County.

The ecological impacts of this transition from agricultural land to urban land uses have only begun to be understood (Keys et al. 2007). What is clear is that this change results in a loss of agricultural open space that, although modified, provides environmental services to nature as well as humans. Perhaps another significant impact is the cultural loss of the multigenerational agricultural community that had farmed the periphery of the Phoenix region. While many have reinvested their land profits in smaller farming operations within the county, the decline in the total acreage in agriculture and the dislocation of farms to more distant areas signals an end to much of the farming economy and community within Maricopa County. On the flip side, many farmers have found immediate financial benefits and improved future opportunities through the sale of agricultural land. Keeping with the pragmatic-optimist image of farmers, one of the interviewees summed up the situation by stating matter-of-factly, “Growing houses beats growing crops.”

Gabe Judkins
Arizona State University
Gabe Judkins

Gabe Judkins is a geography Ph.D. student at Arizona State University, aspiring to one day own his own farm. While he might be unable to afford the land prices around Phoenix, Arizona, he enjoys living off the land vicariously through his interviews with farmers in Arizona and Mexico. Even though his article focuses on the decline of cotton, he says, “fresh fruits and vegetables make up the majority of my academic diet, as globalization keeps them in season all year round.”

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