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What should desert farmers plant?
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What should desert farmers plant?

What should desert farmers grow?

On a spring day that was unusually hot in other parts of the country, I drove south from Phoenix on dirt roads to search for an answer to a question I had been struggling with. The West is currently in a water crisis which is hard to comprehend. The Colorado River is the lifeline for more than 40 million people in seven US states and two other countries. Its waters are rapidly dwindling at an alarming rate. Since the 1900s flows have dropped by 20%, which is largely due to climate change. Experts predict that the situation will only worsen.

Leaders have tried for decades to find a way of equitable sharing what little is left of the shrinking supplies, but there has always remained a stubborn sticking point: Farmers use three quarters of the precious water of the region to grow thirsty, inedible crops such as cotton and hay. Many of them have been around for over a century and aren’t planning to leave. They should be able to grow something that uses less water.

I drove past miles and miles of empty fields dotted with Land for Sale signs outside Eloy. These farms were hard hit by recent cuts in Colorado River water delivery. They had relied on this water since the 1980s. Those who were still involved were struggling to survive and bracing themselves for more rationing. Finally, I reached a chain-link gate that warned me to be careful of snakes. I discovered a 300-acre desert laboratory, owned by Bridgestone Corporation, which was operating behind it. A small team was working on the exact same question.

The compound was not like the bright green alfalfa fields and fluffy cotton I was used accustomed to seeing in central Arizona. A stucco structure was hidden within the barbed wire ring. It had offices, meeting rooms and a greenhouse, where geneticists wearing white coats could inspect the plants with microscopes. Rows of ragged shrubs grew to varying heights out back. This was guayule (pronounced Why-oo-lee), which is a native plant to the Southwestern deserts and also produces latex. This humble outpost is now a tourist attraction. Bridgestone They were trying establish the country’s sole domestic supplier of high-grade natural Rubber used in surgical gloves and aircraft tires. But they were doing so with a crop that was accustomed drought.

Dave Dierig, the farm’s slim and stoic manager, said that this is a large investment. He did not name any numbers.

Researcher Dave Dierig walks among rows of guayule plant at the Bridgestone Guayule Research Farm in Eloy, Arizona.

The company wants to disrupt a supply route that has for more then a century been milking raw rubber from tropical forests. They want to shift it to the middle the searing desert. This laboratory will need to develop a wundercrop, which produces high rubber yields using relatively little water. This is just the beginning. Bridgestone will also need to develop guayule specific farm equipment and convince Arizona farmers, who proudly claim to be responsible for providing food and fiber to American families, to produce something that cannot be eaten nor worn. Many companies and the U.S. have tried and failed to do so.

It’s impossible to do it all and still make a living. Good luck to the guy who claims he can. Hank Inman, a Goodyear spokesperson, said that he thinks he is dreaming. Los Angeles TimesHis company, in 1988, threw in its towel on its own Guayule scheme.

Dierig, who is also an expert in plant breeding, was determined that this time would be different. Bridgestone made the first tires entirely made of guayule rubber in 2015. The company also received a $15 million grant by the USDA to continue its research. The company announced in 2021 that it would extend those laboratory experiments and make a breakthrough in genetic research. It also committed to opening a commercial processing plant in Arizona by 2026.

I was staring at a sea of tealbushes as I scanned the landscape. This is how adaptation to climate change in Arizona looks like. The coast cities build seawalls, the river towns create wetlands to absorb floods, and Californians thinning their forests of tinder. Desert farmers are looking for a crop that can withstand 114 degree days with less than four inches per year and still generate enough money to run their air conditioning.

Even if this crop wasn’t it, understanding the reasons could still be a help to thousands of farmers and the entire industry.

Dierig bent over a guayule bushHe took off a woody stem and showed me its dense hairs and waxy coating. These keep moisture from escaping its leaflets. He explained that there’s no other crop like the guayule. It’s a desert shrub, but it also produces latex. The densely-planted shrubs sent their taproots down 20 feet to moisture below our feet. This trick allows them long periods without rain. Guayule consumes about 3.5 acres feet of water each season (an acrefoot is enough to cover 1 acre of land a ft deep). This is less than cotton, and nearly twice as much as alfalfa. Dierigs team is working hard to trim six inches and increase yield.

In the Sonoran Desert, people used to chew the stems from the shrubs to get their latex out and collect it in small balls. One of these was found by archeologists at a dig a few miles away. It is amazing that we found enough rubber in the 100-acres of guayule to make approximately 1,000 tires, considering that latex only accounts for 8 percent of the plant’s total biomass.

Guayule plants (left) have a distinct tap root which gives them their drought tolerance. Triticale, a wheat-rye hybrid with more developed roots, is to the right. Triticale is a common Arizona desert crop and was developed in Germany, Scotland, and Germany in 1800s.

There are many plants that produce rubber. This is most likely because they produce it as a defense against parasites or disease. However, only a few plants can produce the type of rubber that is needed to make tires or high-grade latex. Guayule, out of all the others, is the only one that can adapt to harsh environments. Today, 90 percent of America’s natural rubber is produced from hevea trees spread over 27,000 miles in Southeast Asia. This accounts for three quarters the world’s total production. This concentration makes it more difficult for U.S. companies and global stocks to be harmed by disease. It is not surprising then that Americans have been trying to build up domestic supply for some time.

In the 1920s, a blight struck Brazil’s hevea plantations. The U.S. government tried to grow guayule in its attempt to combat the disease. However, it soon gave up. The U.S. government started planting guayule in 1940 when Japan invaded Indochina. It then burned 21 million pounds of it. Thirty-years later, during the Arab oil embargo the U.S. gave the shrub a second abbreviated try to search for synthetic polymers. Guayules were abandoned each time in favor other crops or as soon the price of imported rubber fell. Sustainable production never took root.

Bridgestone has made some significant genetic breakthroughs. Desert farmers are now desperate for a way of staying in business. Maybe things will change this time.

A worker cuts a hevea leaf to extract latex rubber from a plantation in Ivory Coast. Photo by ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images.

Rimjhim Aggarwal from Arizona State University is a sustainability researcher. She told me that the region has not taken alternative options seriously in the past. She said that now that water restrictions have been imposed, it is important to explore other options. Aggarwal stressed that agriculture must not disappear from central valley, in light of the severe food shortages experienced in Phoenix during pandemic. Guayule, even if you don’t have the money to eat it, is a high-value crop that has a buyer waiting for you. It might also provide a revenue stream that keeps farmland productive.


The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was established in August 2021. Announcement The long-awaited news: Cutbacks in Colorado River water were necessary to avoid a larger disaster. Thanks to a complex web of 20th-century water laws and a list of court decisions, backdoor agreements, hundreds had been left without a livelihood. This $23-billion state’s agriculture industry would lose its entire river water supply in 2023.

This was something farmers knew. Fallowing is when farmers leave unplanted areas. Drip irrigation systems, high-tech field moisture monitoring and less-thirsty varieties have been purchased by some. Many others are now pumping groundwater, with some limitations from already stressed wells. Some have even tried other crops, such as hemp and barley. However, no new crop has yet to live up the hype. Most growers are sticking with what is familiar, as long water flows.

Gary Deen said that it is futile to grow something you can’t sell. Deens family has made a fortune in some of the most lucrative rural industries in Arizona, including silver mining and cotton farming. I met him at his 400-acre farm, under a tree populated with so many warbling meadowlarks, that I couldn’t hear him reminiscing about the state’s past 100 years of economic growth.

Deen began growing Bridgestones’ guayule back in 2015, but has not yet gotten rid of his wheat, cotton, or even hay. The company planted 40 acre of its experimental crop on Deen’s property, managed the weeds, harvested and paid him for the harvest as if it were cotton. Bridgestone was careful not to set too high expectations for farmers.

Gary Deen, an Arizona farmer walks in a flood-irrigated area that is being prepared to grow cotton. He grew guayule here for six years with the Bridgestone Guayule Research program.

Dierig stated that past attempts put the horse before the cart. Before ensuring a long-term market, they gave experimental seeds to farmers. His team now uses seeds from a Colorado national seed bank and two proprietary varieties to map the DNA of different Guayule strains. This allows them to select traits such as drought tolerance and highest yield. Bridgestone also plants shrubs at satellite outposts in order to identify varieties that can withstand the cold winters at higher elevations. Guayule takes two to mature, and the company plans to grow in Texas and California.

Deen showed me around his farm. A prototype baler was built to cut through the stuff. Bridgestone is developing new harvesting equipment for Guayules, which has woody stems that can easily throttle traditional balers. Even the seeds were five times smaller that rice and needed a special wax coating to prevent them glomming together while being planted.

Bridgestone has overcome these hurdles because it sees the potential on its back end, Dierig said in his laboratory. Domestic production will reduce US natural rubber imports by $1.4 billion annually, Dierig said. Tires are only one part of the story. Bridgestone is creating an ecosystem of markets that includes the largest Italian chemical company, in order to give farmers many reasons to grow guayule.

Its new Arizona processing facility will be capable of processing 1,000 tons of biomass per day into multiple high value products. Latex for use as hypoallergenic surgical gloves (a $28 million global industry), resin for adhesives, binders to asphalt and terpenes used in insecticides will all be possible once it is completed. The remaining woody fibers, which make up about 80 percent of a shrub’s total mass, can be separated from these chemical compounds and used as biofuel.

A cotton plant outside Eloy in Arizona, which was almost renamed Cotton City by the early 1900s.

Deen, whose agreement with BridgestoneThe deal was ended when the company switched to using farmland close to the desert laboratory. This level of certainty is rare in a world that sees crop prices fluctuate and acts by God seem to be occurring more often. Bridgestone is trying to find enough growers.

Dierig stated that while they were paying a premium for being new, the company expects guayule will soon stand on its merits without any premium and with no support for cultivation or harvest. Dierig must have 10,000 acres planted by 2024 to be able to sustain his commercial production goals. Another 10,000 acres will be needed the next year. Only 200 acres are currently planted.

If we could find a crop that’s a low-water user, like guayule, that we can make money on, year in and year out, we’re going to be all over it, said Dan Thelander, an elder statesman of Arizona agriculture whose family grows on about 5,000 acres in the central valley. They plan to plant 40 acres for Bridgestone in this spring.

Thelander, who has been involved with discussions about water shortages for years, said, “Everybody’s feeling the pain but I can tell that agriculture in Pinal County will feel a lot more pain then anyone else.” As farmers fallow land, he explained, there will be more laborers not getting paychecks; then they’re not buying things in stores the fertilizer, the seed, the pesticide, the tractors, equipment, and repair. Guayule could help ease the burden on farmers and buoy this weary community.

The Thelanders could manage 1,000 acre of guayule. However, Dierig wants initial production to be spread over many smaller parcels in order to protect his investment against the unpredictable rainfall patterns. This means that they need to win buy-in from a small number of farmers who are used to growing cotton or hay over the generations. These farmers then sell their produce to local ranchers and to foreign customers who pay fixed rates for cheap grass.

Will Thelander stands in front of a field full of guayule on the day it is to be harvested. His field of wheat, which is a staple crop in the south-central Phoenix farms, is just behind him.

Bridgestones Farm is where Dierig and his team present to new converts. They have also received a commitment from Gila River Indian Community, whose tribal farmers are entitled to more Colorado River water that any other central valley farmers. Guayule is at a distinct disadvantage as traditional decisions often determine cropping decisions.

Eloy was first established in 1918. Locals tried to name it Cotton City. The lucrative crop has been a success century later: in 2019, 85,500 acres of cotton were planted in Pinal County. This brought in $92 million in revenues. Pinal is ranked 10th among the nation’s cotton-growing counties. Deen proudly displayed a fibrous tuft of cotton atop a chunk of silver ore at his farm office. Bridgestone finds this cultural inclination a problem, but so does the economics.

Land is the most expensive commodity, despite fuel, seed, fertilizer, and tractor prices increasing in recent months. Arizona’s passion to build tract housing and strip shopping malls has resulted in its average cropland cost of at least $1,050. $7,700An acre is more than the average for all Mountain West states. Idaho comes in second at $4,450 per acre. Because most central Arizona farmers lease land rather than own it, they are reluctant to take risks that might delay rent payments. Bridgestone can pay cotton prices, but guayule is less water-intensive than cotton. Farmers could grow more guayule on the water they have, and make more.

It’s not so simple.

Pinal farmers also receive more federal funds than farmers in any other Arizona county. Water-loving cotton is also more heavily subsidized in Arizona than any other crop. Direct subsidies, which were paid at a fixed rate every year, no matter what conditions, have been replaced by federally-funded (and taxpayer-supported) crop insurance payments. These payments pay farmers to compensate for losses in crop yield or decreases in revenue. According to the Pinal Farmers Crop Insurance Survey, it rose from $3.2 Million to $24.6 Million between 2000 and 2020. Data The Environmental Working Group collected the data. The Environmental Working Group received three quarters of the money to pay to cotton growers for their losses. Half of those losses were caused due to a failure in irrigation supply.

This government might be able to encourage a farmer to continue using water-intensive cotton despite extreme drought.

Crop insurance is not designed to discourage or encourage specific crops. It is simply a tool for growers, explained Jeff Yasui (USDAs director of risk management in the Southwest). The program is not designed to cover water issues or the disbursement subsidy payments.

Guayule shrubs at Bridgestone Guayule Research Farm.

Recent papers have shown that agricultural economists argue that the USDA’s crop insurance program is not sufficient. disincentivizes It is possible to experiment with climate-adaptive measures that may help farmers. Even programs that encourage climate-smart strategies, such as planting cover crops, may not be as lucrative as insurance claims. Stanford University researchers published their findings last year. reported The loss of temperature-related losses could account for 14 percent of the $140 million in crop insurance paid to farmers from 1991 to 2017.

If the government wants to help desert farmers adapt to drought, then it should invest in adaptation as much as it does in subsidizing status quo. The latest Farm Bill provided support for projects that are aimed at climate adaptation. This included the $15 million Bridgestone received in research funding. President Biden’s infrastructure bill, which earmarked $8 billion to upgrade and augment West’s water infrastructure, was also supported by the USDA. Bridgestone will no longer pay its current premium and farmers will have little incentive to swap small amounts of cotton seeds with tiny grains of Guayule once they stop paying it.

I didn’t expect to find a silver lining.I was not responsible for the Wests water crisis at Bridgestones desert lab. Guayule is a great product. Otherwise, the U.S. government and many other entities wouldn’t bother. It is also true that Arizona’s farmers are heavily invested into crops that make no sense in a landscape that is facing megadrought. But the desert has been made hospitable by decades of canal laying, dam building, deal striking, subsidy paying, and many other activities. It has 300 days of sunlight, which makes it a great place to grow anything.

After a long day of harvesting hay he explained that although there are more costs, we can still produce higher yields per acre and better quality owing to our climate. If I was a supreme ruler of the world, there wouldn’t be anybody living in this goddamn state except farmers and ranchers.

I have met many people in the cities and suburbs who would love to have Arizona for themselves. We all have to share it for the time being. And as long as that’s the case, wed be better off designing a sustainable future together rather than holding our breath until the water runs out.

Lead image: Paul Sanchez, a Bridgestone Guayule research Farm employee, uses a custom guayule balaer to harvest a field in Stanfield (Arizona). The baler is designed to cut through guayule’s woody stem, which would throttle a traditional baler. Photo by Bill Hatcher 2022.

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