Cotton Farming in Pinal County
By Brent Murphree
Cotton’s rich history in Pinal County is not limited to the current era of super-farming with six-row cotton pickers and international product marketing.
Cotton has been in Pinal County prior to written history and was a marketable commodity prior to the birth of Christ. The earliest evidence of cotton production has
been unearthed as part of the Pre-Columbian cultures of the Hakataya, Mogollon, Anasazi and Hohokam.
The primary cotton producers were the Hohokam people who migrated into Arizona from Northern Mexico. The Hohokam lived in villages along the Salt, Gila and
Santa Cruze Rivers in central Arizona where they had access to water and were able to flood irrigate their small fields through a system of irrigation canals.
In his book, Arizona, A History, Thomas E. Sheridan states that the Hohokam devised the most extensive system of water control on the North American
Archaeologists have traced almost 100 miles of Hohokam canals in the Florence area. Because of the water, Gila River villages became important trade centers for
One large cotton growing settlement was Snaketown, down river of today’s Sacaton. The cotton grown there was used for fiber as well a food supply. Cottonseed
was parched and used in food.
The cotton grown by the Hohokams was quite different from what we see in the fields today. As opposed to the dense, fluffy cotton bolls of today, Hohokam
cotton was a scrubbier bush with sparse lint growing from the seedpod.
Native American cotton was a variation of wild cotton that can be found today in the desert of north and eastern Pinal County. Like the highly educated modern
plant breeders, early cotton growers selected seed from plants that produced better than others and thus developed cotton which is more productive than the wild
Early cotton farmers constructed small dams and diversion canals to get the water to their small fields. This allowed for an expansion of settlements in the area
around 500 AD.
With the increasing settlement, larger canals were built and between 1250 and 1400 and the Southwestern pre-Columbian cotton system prospered. In the 1400’s the
Hohokam culture was in decline and eventually lead to the abandonment of much of the canal system along the Salt and Gila Rivers.
However, a remnant remained. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Arizona they found the Pima Indians and cotton. The Pimas had built their production
upon the existing canal systems the Hohokams had abandoned a century earlier.
Spanish missionaries made note of the cotton production and in 1522 Spain established their rule of Mexico which included present day Pinal County. In 1539 Fray
Marcos de Niza described the Pimas as an agricultural, pottery making people who irrigated by means of artificial canals
In 1600 Juan de Onate began exploring Arizona and its peoples, including the cotton growing regions of the Gila River valleys. Father Eusebio Francisco Kino
established two missions on the Gila River among the Pimas, the Immaculate Conception and St. Andrews in 1700.
Kino was accompanied by Captain Juan Menje through Pima and Cocomaricopa villages near present day Sacaton. When Father Kino died in 1711 written records
of Spanish exploration stopped.
As momentum in agriculture was again building in the mid-18th century a revolt took place that ushered in a new era in Anglo/Native American relations. The Pima
Revolt of 1751 led to shaky relationships between the Europeans and Native Americans.
Luis Oacpicagigua, from the O’odham nation rebelled against the harsh discipline of several Jesuit missionaries. Two priests and more than a hundred Spanish
settlers were killed. As a result, a presidio was established in Tubac.
The cultures of the central Arizona Gila River valley continued to trade cotton and other agricultural products, but the relative peace of earlier times was rife with
raids from hostile tribes.
The Spanish abandoned their ranches in Southern Arizona and eventually the Jesuits, who were instrumental in the relationships established with the Native
American communities were expelled.
A great flux in relationships between Spain, Mexico and the United States occurred from the mid-1700s until the organized development of roads began in the mid-
During this time international disputes, Apache raids and the general wild nature of Arizona made it a place of great unrest. However, agricultural communities of the
Pimas on the Gila River maintained their tradition of growing and trading small amounts of cotton.
In 1846 the Mormon Battalion moved west from Santa Fe, building the road to the coast. Scribes referred to the cultivation of cotton among the Pima villages of the
central Gila River Valley. However, in the following years changing markets, defiled seed stock and the disruption of irrigation water supplies, lead to decline of
Pima Indian produced cotton.
In the spring of 1877, a group of Mormon farmers moved into the Salt River area of what is now Mesa. There they began to produce cotton as a subsistence crop.
Like the Indians they relied heavily on the perennial flow of water on the Salt. With the guaranteed water source they began increase their yields.
The Arizona Canal Company was chartered in 1882 along the Salt River. The canal was completed and promoters claimed that it would help bring 100,000 acres of
unproductive desert under cultivation.
As the settlers increased their number, so did the acreage of Arizona grown cotton. By the turn of the century, irrigation efficiency had increased and cotton was
becoming a major Arizona commodity. South of the Salt River valley, Pinal County farmers began working bring more land into production.
In 1907 the US Department of Agriculture established an experimental farm in Sacaton, in cooperation with the Indian Service. The goal was to develop a strong
variety of long staple cotton, often called American-Egyptian, that could be grown in this region. The Sacaton station would be instrumental over the next 50 years
in the development of Arizona’s long staple Pima cotton.
The August 19, 1917 edition of the Arizona Republican declared, “Alfalfa was King, Cotton was Queen...” Soon however, that would change; cotton would usurp
the throne to reign as Arizona’s number one cash crop.
The First World War helped to drive the demand for fiber. Arizona cotton was used to make rubber tires, rubber belting and rubber hose. Eighty-five percent of the
production of Arizona’s cotton went into rubber consumption, all in demand because of the war effort.
In 1919 the total cotton acres in Pinal County was 2,500. The following year it tripled to 9,000 acres. Increased pump usage for ground water allowed more land to
be brought into production.
Farmers in Pinal County moved away from their reliance on canals carrying water from the Gila River. That allowed land on higher desert ground to be used.
In the 1920s and 1930 agriculture development Pinal County took place at an incredible pace. Coolidge, Casa Grande and Eloy boomed and land was placed under
cultivation and water was pumped for irrigation.
During the Dust Bowl entire families moved west from the Plains to pick cotton in Arizona. The Department of Agriculture document migrant workers in Pinal
County Cotton camps. During this time, production thrived and continued to increase as more land was brought into development.
The Sacaton cotton station was closed in 1954 when a Cotton Research Center was developed on land between Phoenix and Tempe. By the 1960s there were more
than 100,000 acres in agricultural production in Pinal County.
Desert land was no longer being brought into production because of water restrictions, however the cotton market was thriving and many of the larger cotton farms
had reached their stride.
The Central Arizona Project reached Pinal County in the 1980s and while water was reliable it also became expensive.
The University of Arizona’s Cotton Research Center was moved to Maricopa in 1984 and cotton variety development continued on that site.
Several seed development companies maintained nurseries in Pinal County where major developments were taking place in biotechnology. Varieties of cotton
containing insect resistant genes were engineered and growers in the area leapt at the chance to incorporate the varieties into their farming practices.
The 1990s brought troubled times for the area cotton growers. Weather, exotic insect and production problems plagued growers at the same time prices began to
drop because of increased competition from overseas. However, the cotton community endured. In 1996 the first transgenic cotton was released commercially.
And, the effects were profound. Increased production, reduction of pest control applications and water and energy saving held cost of production at bay as water
prices continued to increase.
An entire species of exotic pests were being controlled as never before. Populations of beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings and small wasps were rebounding in
cotton fields across Pinal County.
Today, Pinal County beats the rest of the state in production acres. It also remains one of the most productive cotton production areas in the US.
As the nation experiences low prices and increased competition, area farmers struggle to make a profit. However, the progressive cotton farmers of Pinal County
continue keep pace with the world by breeding efficient new varieties, cleaning up the environment by using more earth friendly pest control measures, and utilizing
the latest technology in electronics, water conservation and mechanization to increase their productivity.
For many, cotton is still king in Pinal County.
The perfect environment - Arizona's
warm, arid climate is perfect for
growing abundant, clean, white
White Gold - The genes of
Arizona's upland cotton go back to
varieties grown in Arizona and
Mexico hundreds of years ago.
Friendly Corners, Eloy, Arizona -
Cotton camps and migant workers
in the area were featured by
Dothea Lange in her photo work
from the depression era.