Making the most of scarce water resources for citrus and pecans

Photos by Lee Riggs, Unless Otherwise Noted.
Harold Payne discusses citrus production.

While development continues to gobble up much of Arizona’s farmland, one segment of agriculture is expanding. Six commercial farming operations exist on American Indian land in the state, and a continual focus is on efficient use of the West’s most precious resource: water. Fort McDowell Farm is located east of the McDowell Mountains just outside Phoenix. It is one of nine businesses of the Yavapai Indian Nation whose membership totals about 800. Located on tribal land, Fort McDowell Farm lies in an area mostly surrounded by urban development. Water has meant the difference in the tribe’s ability to transform the subsistence farming established in the early 1900s to a high-tech, profitable farming operation now producing citrus, pecans and alfalfa.

Harold Payne, the farm’s general manager, has managed the farm for 10 years and had previously worked with the tribe on a consulting basis. Payne said, “The Yavapai had historically used the water, and the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that they owned water rights in perpetuity.” Fort McDowell Farm has about 300 acres of citrus trees and 1,000 acres of pecan trees, along with 600 acres of alfalfa, which is sold to the local horse market.

Evolving citrus and pecan farming

A lack of water limited agricultural development over the years, but efforts were begun to increase efficiency, including lining the main irrigation canal with concrete in 1982. The Yavapai Nation fought and won two court battles over water. Congress approved the Central Arizona Project (CAP) in 1968. The plan called for the building of Orme Dam, would have flooded most of Fort McDowell Farm. The Yavapai won a decade-long battle preventing the building of the dam. In 1990, the tribe acquired a major water settlement, and as part of the settlement, received a long-term, low-interest loan that supported the expansion of Fort McDowell Farm from 700 to 2,000 acres.

Growing citrus and pecans

With the availability of water, concerted efforts went into developing a major agricultural operation at Fort McDowell Farm, and citrus and pecan trees were planted in 2001.

Water is carried from the Verde River to Fort McDowell Farm in the main concrete-lined irrigation canal known as Jones Ditch. Two computerized pumping stations pump water from Jones Ditch into PVC pipes that run under the roads. A 26-0-0 liquid nitrogen is added to the water at the pumping station to provide fertigation to the crops. The water is eventually carried by lateral lines into the orchards. Two Rain Bird micro sprayers on stakes spray irrigation water in a circle around the base of each tree. A significant portion of the irrigation is done at night, thereby reducing evaporation into the hot, dry Arizona air.

The citrus trees are generally irrigated twice weekly for 12 hours, with the run time adjusted due to weather and temperature. “When it’s not so warm, we may irrigate every other week instead of weekly,” Payne said.

Technology plays a major role in managing irrigation at Fort McDowell Farm. Payne said, “We have our own weather station linked to the Internet. It can be read from anywhere with the ET measurement and weather forecast, the irrigation system can be run from anywhere with the Internet. Ten sets of soil sensors are located in the orchards that must be physically read.”

Fort McDowell Farm is located at an elevation of 1,500 feet, and occasional freezes are a concern. Damage occurs if the temperature is 28 degrees or below for four hours. “We have a freeze every three or four years. We turn on the irrigation system and we have 30 big wind machines to stir up the air,” Payne said.

A tank in the orchard holds water used
for spraying.

Chemical use is limited in areas of the farm bordering residential development. Success or dimenthoate is sprayed each spring to prevent citrus thrips. Foliar micronutrients and occasionally some foliar nitrogen are sprayed, Prowl is used to treat for weeds, and postemergent Roundup is used when necessary. A holding tank for water used for spraying is located in the orchard.

Maintaining good community relations is an important aspect of farming operations in the urban area. Payne said, “The tribal president, Dr. Clinton Pattea, and I have met with the homeowners’ association in the adjacent community of Rio Verde in an informational meeting just to let them know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

Meeting market needs

Changing tastes and profitability margins dictate changes in fruits and vegetables grown in all parts of the country. The availability of improved varieties and the effects of imports on prices significantly affect those choices. Navel oranges, for example, have been highly popular for many years, but that is changing. Fort McDowell Farm is responding to that within the citrus mix that is grown. Navel orange trees are being bulldozed to be replaced with a citrus that will carry a higher profit margin.

Rain Bird heads spray a circle of irrigation water around trees.

 “We grow 175 acres of Washington navel oranges, selected due to their historic popularity and marketability,” Payne said. “But, they are no longer profitable due to competition from the Spanish clementines and large acreages of navels in California. We are gradually removing the navel acres and increasing our lemon acres. We currently grow 60 acres of Limonera 8A lemons. They yield well and have good prices most years.”

Payne noted, “We grow 30 acres of Fairchild tangerines, which have historically been popular, but are being replaced by the new seedless varieties of tangerines that grow in California.” Additionally, about 30 acres of Minneola tangelos are grown, as well as 10 acres of Rio Red grapefruit. “The Rio Red grapefruit are particularly popular with the local fruit markets.” Approximately 3 million pounds of citrus are sold annually to Mesa Citrus Growers, a Sunkist cooperative. Citrus from Fort McDowell Farm is distributed to local markets and shipped nationwide.

Photos by Lee Riggs, Unless Otherwise Noted.
Wind machines are turned on when occasional freezing temperatures occur.
 
Jones Ditch canal carries water from Verde River to the farm.

Fort McDowell Farm grows Western Schley pecans and sells about a million pounds of in-shell pecans annually to Green Valley Pecans. Green Valley shells, packages and markets the pecans locally and across the nation.

Pecan harvest has previously been contracted to a commercial harvester, but Fort McDowell Farm will purchase its own Weldcraft catch-frame pecan harvester for the next harvest. “The contractor had been using our drivers for the harvest, so now we’ll be doing it ourselves with our own equipment,” Payne said.

To date, citrus production has produced greater profit, but Payne expects citrus and pecans to be about equal. “Our pecans have not yet reached full production,” he said.

“One tribal member, Jarvis Bear, has been with the farm for about 20 years,” Payne said. “With so much construction and other work available, most tribal members are employed in other jobs.” Seasonal workers are employed through contractors. Tree pruning is done on a contract basis under the direction of Darrin Patterson, orchard manager. Fort McDowell Farm employs about 15 people year-round with seasonal workers as needed.

“Fort McDowell Farm is a member of the Southwest Indian Agricultural Association,” Payne said. The association is made up of several Arizona tribes involved in agricultural operations and provides seminars and other educational resources.

Payne was previously a technical consultant in agronomy who worked with the tribe. He earned a Bachelors degree in agronomy from Brigham Young University, and an Masters degree at the University of Arizona.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Growing. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.