Starving cows. Fallow farms. The Arizona drought is among the worst in the country

“For sale” signs advertise desperate Arizona farmers looking to sell land at discount. Cities are raising water prices. Almost all of Arizona is in a drought that may get worse.

8/4/2021 4:40:00 AM

“For sale” signs advertise desperate Arizona farmers looking to sell land at discount. Cities are raising water prices. Almost all of Arizona is in a drought that may get worse.

Nearly all of Arizona is in drought, with large swaths in extreme drought. Experts say the picture may well get worse in a state where more than a third of its water comes from Lake Mead.

This summer, the San Carlos reservoir hit zero acre-feet.“If you want to eat ice cream, you need people like us growing the feed,” Caywood said recently as she sat in the small, wooden shed on the property where she keeps a digital slideshow of the once-lively green and white fields to show kids who still come by on field trips. All that survived now were old mesquite and cottonwood trees on the edges of the land.

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“We’re wiped clean,” Caywood said. “You can’t grow.”Cattle go up for sale at Marana Stockyards in Marana, Ariz. “If you can’t grow grass, you buy it. But the hay is too expensive because there’s less water to grow it and less water expected down the line,” said Clay Buck Parsons, who runs the auction house with his father, Clay Parsons.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Emaciated cattle are often sold at Marana Stockyards, which has seen an increase in sales amid the decreased feed availability that the drought has caused.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)An hour south of the the Caywood property at the Pinal County line, the ranchers who show up each week at Marana Stockyards are feeling the trickle-down effects of the drought. The Parsons family has auctioned cattle here for 25 years. Business is picking up.

Dozens of men in cowboy hats and leather boots arrive each Wednesday to watch their bulls, cows and calves sold off. Clay Buck Parsons, a third-generation rancher and auctioneer, ushers cattle into holding pens outside the red barnyard-like building while Parsons’ dad mans a computer as locals in the stands make bids and buyers log in online.

Advertisement“We’ve sold 12,000 more head this year already than last year,” said Parsons, 29. Most go to Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma.“You can’t feed the animals without grass,” he said, looking out at dozens of black Angus mother cows whose shoulders and ribs jutted out from grazing on dying fields.

“If you can’t grow grass, you buy it. But the hay is too expensive because there’s less water to grow it and less water expected down the line. So the ranchers are cutting down on their herd to maintain smaller numbers where they can still make a profit.”

Clay Parsons owns Marana Stockyards, which he runs with his son, Clay Buck Parsons.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Rancher Mike Mercer, left, regularly buys underweight cows at Marana Stockyards. He feeds them for a few months before reselling them for profit.

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(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Buck said it costs up to $4 a day per cow for hay, four times more than grazing on grass. The cost of raising beef can be several thousand times more than some vegetables, such as lettuce. But ranchers here said family history — and profits — had until recently seemed worth holding on to.

One of the regulars to come that day was Mike Mercer. At 54, he has been ranching since his teens. For many years, his land in Mammoth, a village of 1,650, provided for 700 mother cows. Now, he can’t have more than 100 at a time as grass disappears.“You can’t run cattle. It’s just — everything’s gone,” Mercer said. “A lot of guys are switching into copper mining or welding or trucking.”

These days, Mercer buys skinny, sickly cows, feeds them for a few months on hay in a covered feedlot, and resells them at a profit. On that day, he sold 88 to buyers in Texas and Oklahoma.The Parsons family’s auction house has sold 12,000 more cows this year than last year. Many ranchers can no longer afford to feed their cattle because of the drought.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)AdvertisementA Christian who believes God is responsible for the drought, he prayed for a change.“You just keep saying we can’t have another year this bad and then we have another year even worse.... Leave it in God’s hands. Because I don’t know what else to do. You pray for rain. Oh, God, yeah. Pray for rain.”

Caywood, a former farming teacher at the University of California Agricultural and Natural Resources Division in El Centro, Calif., also questions those who say climate change is to blame for her struggles.“I don’t believe in it. I believe things are cyclical. But I can’t believe that it’s happening so quickly,” said Caywood, who has a master’s degree in agricultural education.

Nancy Caywood, left, and her grandson Thomas Hartman, 14, stand at the office of Caywood Farms. Hartman is learning to farm, raising steer and chickens.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Her son, Travis, built a home on the farm where he lives with two sons. She is thankful that he has continued in the family tradition. But she is more thankful that he is also a firefighter and EMT, a job that provides a stable income. Her `14-year-old grandkids Thomas and Cameron are learning to farm, raising steer and chickens. She has encouraged them but also told them to consider backup plans.

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In the good years, the farm would easily make tens of thousands of dollars in profits, more than enough to cover $22,000 in annual property taxes. This year, Caywood, who had hoped to retire, may dip into savings to cover the bill.Recently, her son leased two 80-acre plots in different irrigation districts that have access to canal water from the Colorado River. Just a few miles from Caywood Farms, corn stalks reach 5 feet into the air. They’ll be chopped up for dairy cow feed.

The family didn’t want more farming land but found it necessary to cover the taxes on its dying historic property.AdvertisementExcept there’s one problem.Because of the drought, Arizona will have 18% less water from the Colorado River next year. Farms like Caywood’s son’s will be hit hardest because of rules governing how water is divided in the state.

“We have no cotton. It’s gone. It’s dead. The alfalfa barely exists,” Caywood said. She may be forced to use her savings to cover taxes on the farm, which isn’t making money anymore.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)“It seems there’s really no way out of drought,” Caywood said the other week, browsing old photos of her parents and son standing by cotton bales.

Sometimes, she felt as though it wasn’t just a farm but a family and way of life slipping away. Her father, Tommy, died in January at 98. Her 94-year-old mother, Sammie, was in and out of the hospital.All around her, farms were disappearing. Next door, the Wuertzes sold much of theirs for solar panels. Down the street, an abandoned construction project stood where alfalfa once grew. Caywood had gotten offers from buyers too. She rejected them.

She looked at the barren fields where her grandfather taught her how to examine the changing color of a cotton blossom to tell where the plant was in its life span. She thought back to when water flowed freely in the dried-up irrigation canals where she would sneak away to swim as a kid.

Read more: Los Angeles Times »

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