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Just won't quit: Arizona farming families persist as development gobbles up land

Maricopa County lost 1.4 million acres of farmland from 1969 to 2017

Posted 8/12/20

The Rayner and Gladden families’ multigenerational Southwest Valley farming operations have weathered just about everything the world has thrown at them for the better part of 100 years, from drought and pests to extreme price swings and two pandemics, but there are two modern threats that are unrelenting — development and water availability.

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Just won't quit: Arizona farming families persist as development gobbles up land

Maricopa County lost 1.4 million acres of farmland from 1969 to 2017


The Rayner and Gladden families’ multigenerational Southwest Valley farming operations have weathered just about everything the world has thrown at them for the better part of 100 years, from drought and pests to extreme price swings and two pandemics.

But there are two modern threats that are unrelenting — development and water availability.

“We’re running out of land and we’re running out of water,” William Thomas Gladden, known by locals as “T,” said when he sat down at the Litchfield Park Historical Society Museum with friend and fellow farmer Ron Rayner to discuss farming in the Southwest Valley. “Everybody wants our water.”

Mr. Rayner and Mr. Gladden both live in Litchfield Park and travel to their families' farms Goodyear and Palo Verde near Buckeye at least five days a week.

Three generations of A Tumbling-T farmers

Mr. Rayner has owned the family’s Goodyear-based A Tumbling-T Ranches with his brothers, Earle and Robert, since their father, Earle Rayner Sr., passed away in 1968.

Rayners have been farming in the area since the brothers’ great-grandfather, J.L. Rayner, and grandfather, Frank Rayner, arrived from Northern California in 1914 and bought land near Indian School Road in Litchfield Park. That operation predates Paul W. Litchfield and Goodyear Tire & Rubber’s 16,000-acre Southwest Cotton Co. operation by a couple of years.

Now in their late 70s and early 80s, the brothers head up a two-state farming operation that includes all three of their sons and their families, as well as 20 local employees.

Headquartered on land purchased in 1946 by their father, the ranch’s office is just steps from the tiny childhood home where the brothers and their siblings were raised.

Thanks to encroachment, Goodyear Airport is just a mile to the north of the property and Phoenix Raceway a few miles to the southeast. Folks headed down Estrella Parkway to the raceway or to and from their homes in Estrella may not know it, but they pass by the Rayners’ fields on the daily.

Named for a cattle brand registered by Earle Sr. decades ago, A Tumbling-T grows cotton, durham wheat for pasta, and alfalfa, forage wheat and forage sorghum for local dairies on 6,000 acres the Rayners own or lease in Goodyear and Gila Bend. The family also grows a variety of olives, wine grapes and other produce on 3,800 acres in California’s Central Valley.

Mr. Rayner, the public face of the operation, represents A Tumbling-T on organizational boards and associations. He is chairman of Electrical District 8, a municipal entity that has contracted with Arizona Public Service to provide power to area farms since 1987, and he’s president of Farmers Gin Inc., a 12-farm partnership that built a cotton gin in Buckeye in 1981.

“Before you can sell it, you have to process it,” Mr. Rayner said, noting that there were several mills in the area, including one in Litchfield Park, that closed as cities began developing in the 1960s and ‘70s.

About 95% of Mr. Rayner’s time is spent monitoring state and federal regulations, ensuring the operation complies with annual reporting requirements, fielding calls from landlords and dealing with other issues that impact the farming operation, including water.

“We just keep getting squeezed on how much water we can use,” he said.

“To develop a housing area, you have to prove you have 100 years of water,” Mr. Gladden added. “We’re in competition for that.”

Since the mid-1990s, A Tumbling-T has practiced minimum tillage, a conservation farming method the Rayner brothers developed to reduce the farming operation’s water use and impacts on the land.

It’s a six-year rotation system they’ve fine-tuned over the years. The soil isn’t tilled after the harvest, which creates an organic crust that maintains moisture in the fields and protects the crops from heat stress by protecting the soil from the region’s extreme temperatures.

Crops are planted on a schedule that sees half the land planted in alfalfa and wheat in December and the alfalfa harvested monthly until the wheat is harvested in May, then two-thirds of the land is planted in cotton and a third in sorghum. When cotton and sorghum harvests are complete around November, the rotations begin again.

“We try to keep all the fields planted all the time,” Mr. Rayner said.

Lost farmland in Maricopa County

During the 48-year period ending in 2017, the last year for which figures are available, Maricopa County lost 1.4 million acres of farmland, dropping from a high of 1,898,555 million acres in 1969 to 474,438 acres, according to figures provided by Dave DeWalt, state statistician for the USDA National Agricultural Statistic Service’s Mountain Region Arizona Field Office.

“The Census of Agriculture data is the only source of this type of data at the county level,” Mr. DeWalt said. Conducted every five years, the agricultural census counts U.S. farms and ranches, and the people who operate them. The next count is scheduled for 2022. For more information, visitnass.usda.gov/AgCensus.

In addition to the total amount of land devoted to farming and ranching, among other things the agricultural census looks at how much land is devoted to all crops and how much is devoted to citrus.

During that same period ending in 2017, acreage devoted to all crops produced in the county dropped 285,170 acres, from 542,357 to 257,187, and citrus acreage fell by 16,323 acres, from 17,625 to 1,302 acres.

Breaking down the losses

Just in the past two years, A Tumbling-T Ranches has lost 900 leased acres to local development, including land in Goodyear where Aldi is building a new grocery store, and where shoe giant Nike had planned to open a manufacturing plant that promised to add 500 jobs to the local economy. Nike announced in late July it was scrapping the plant due to losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

While it can’t be quantified in exact dollars because of fluctuating crop prices and other costs of farming, losing 900 acres in two years is significant, said Ayman Mostafa, a regional agriculture specialist with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension and Department of Entymology.

On average, he said, a single acre dedicated to alfalfa yields about 8.4 tons of the crop annually. Multiply that by 900, and that’s 7,560 tons of hay no longer available to feed livestock.

“For good growers like the Rayners, it might be 11 tons or more per acre,” Mr. Mostafa said.

Add in the impact of losing land involved in a multi-year crop rotation schedule, and the toll on the bottom line mounts.

Both Mr. Rayner and Mr. Gladden said many investors purchase farmland planning sell it to developers, and ask farmers to continue growing until the land sells and construction begins because farmland is taxed at a lower rate than other uses. Many property owners only offer one-year leases to the farmers, further complicating rotation schedules.

Sometimes leases are extended for years when the market is slow. In a hot market like the West Valley is experiencing as cities like Goodyear and others entice companies to build manufacturing plants, data centers and distribution centers like Amazon and Chewy to bring much-needed jobs to the area, fields can be green one day and gone tomorrow.

“I visit and inspect a lot of fields,” said Mr. Mostafa, who has been with the agricultural extension since 2011. “I can go one day and there’s alfalfa in the field, and I can go a month later, and there’s no alfalfa and they’re developing.”

“It’s really disheartening,” Mr. Rayner said as he inspected a large aerial map in A Tumbling-T’s office that shows parcel after parcel the family used to farm exed out. “My nephew, Perry, schedules the (planting activities). He gets so frustrated.”

Construction also can be a disruption, he said. Recently, trucks hauling crops from the farm had to find alternate routes for about three months while the city installed water lines along Broadway Road, which runs past A Tumbling-T’s headquarters and several of its fields.

Westward expansion comes to Southwest Valley

Mr. Gladden, who has farmed in the Southwest Valley for more than 60 years, grew up in the East Valley. His father, James E. “Ned” Gladden, arrived in Marana in the East Valley in 1927. The elder Gladden worked for his uncle while he saved enough money to buy 12 jersey cows and 40 acres in Chandler and start his own dairy in 1941 or ‘42, Mr. Gladden recalled.

Development in the East Valley prompted the family to sell their operation in Chandler in 1955, and purchase 160 acres near Cashion. Mr. Gladden turned 20 years old that year and joined his father in the family business. They grew cotton and alfalfa and ran a dairy.

When his father retired in 1974, Mr. Gladden bought out his interest, and over the years family members have come and gone in the farming operation, which grew everything from alfalfa and cotton to sugar beets on as many as 9,000 acres in Buckeye, nearby Palo Verde and the Harquahala Valley.

In 1985, Mr. Gladden and his wife, Nicole, brought their nephew, Dan, on as a partner. In the 1990s, they began paring down the operation and today, the trio own Saddle Mountain Dairy and the Gladden Farms II off Old Highway 80 in Palo Verde about six miles southwest of Buckeye.

Between both operations, the trio employs about 50 people, including Dan’s sons Josh and Clint, and their families. Josh Gladden manages the dairy and recently started one of his own. The farm produces feed crops for the dairy’s 8,500 cows on 1,700 acres the family owns and another 800 acres they lease.

Eventually, Mr. Gladden said, Dan Gladden will buy out the elder Gladdens’ interest and take over both operations.

Driving to Palo Verde one recent Wednesday morning from Litchfield Park, Mr. Gladden pointed out all the development along the Loop 303, like the 700,000-square-foot Sub-Zero appliance manufacturing plant, 624,000-square-foot Dick’s Sporting Goods distribution center, 400,000-square-foot REI warehouse complex and others.

“Those big buildings will probably completely line this freeway one day,” he said. “I’m a farmer so obviously I’m concerned about (big developments replacing farmland), but I guess that’s progress.”

One plant Mr. Gladden is looking forward to is Fairlife LLC’s 300,000-square-foot milk processing plant and distribution center, scheduled to open at Cotton Lane and Thomas Road in Goodyear later this year. In addition to providing an estimated 140 jobs, Fairlife is working with United Dairymen of Arizona to source milk from local dairies, including Saddle Mountain Dairy.

That large-scale development hasn’t made its way to the area around the Gladden family’s operation yet; miles and miles of green fields are dotted with a few housing communities, but one mostly sees farmhouses, barns and buildings like the 130-year-old Palo Verde Baptist Church.

The Buckeye Water Conservation and Drainage District, which has some of the oldest water rights in the state, is home to about 17,000 acres of farmland, 90% family-owned, Mr. Gladden said. In all, the Buckeye area has about 30,000 acres of farmland, he said.

Like Mr. Rayner in Goodyear, Mr. Gladden has been active in farm-related issues for much of his career. He chairs the Buckeye district’s board of directors, has served on the Arizona Cotton Growers, Harquahala Irrigation Board and the Arizona Grain boards, and maintains memberships in associations like the Arizona Farm Bureau and United Dairymen of Arizona.

At 85, why does he do it? He loves farming, and he wants to leave a successful operation for his family.

“There will be farming in this district at least for another 50 years,” Mr. Gladden said. “That’s what our family is counting on.”

News Editor Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at kosullivan@newszap.com or 760-963-1697.