The Five Cs of Arizona: Cotton

This article is part of the five Cs of Arizona, which are climate, citrus, cattle, copper, and cotton.

Cotton, for most of us in the United States, is a Southern crop. It harkens back to the causes of the Civil War, grand plantations, and light, breezy shirts that are a joy to wear in the summer. Arizona has its own unique history with cotton that many might not know.

Cotton History

Did you know that the blockade imposed by the Union during the American Civil War helped bring about the cotton industry in Arizona? Settlers, seeking to satiate European demand for the material, began growing cotton in Arizona, seeing as the Pima tribe was already cultivating the crop. Seeing that more people were needed, and the freshwater aquifers were in abundance (a fact that did not escape Saudi Arabia decades later), cotton farmers began their pilgrimage from the East to make their claims in Arizona.

In the 1910s, there was the Pima Cotton Boom, which lead to the crops ubiquity in the state from then through World War I. The revolution was brought on by genetic engineering: Farmers produced a hybrid of Egyptian and American cottons, dubbed Pima Cotton, named after the eponymous tribe that inhabited the region for hundreds of years. The crop hit rough times when cotton demand fell in the 1950s, but it has held footing through the years. Fun fact: They rebranded Pima cotton to Supima, a combination of “superior” and “pima,” to convince consumers that this type of cotton was superior to synthetic fibers that were gaining popularity.

Cotton fields tend to cluster around Phoenix, but over 100,ooo acres of the crop are grown all across the state. In 2015, cotton production in the state generated around 86 million dollars for the state.

Arizona Cotton - Two Second Street -
Arizona Supima Cotton (Courtesy of Marc Lewkowitz)

Water Challenges

Water is a challenge for cotton growers. Cotton requires a lot of water to grow properly, and given the recent years-long droughts being experienced in the West, some would argue that continuing Arizona’s cotton-growing tradition would be ill-advised. The crop takes sixty percent more more water to grow than wheat and all that water has to come from somewhere: namely, the Colorado River, which is already shrinking in the heat. While the drought harms cotton crops, farmers receive subsidies that help them stay afloat during trying times. Given the incredibly costly process of introducing new crops to their farms, many continue to grow cotton, because shifting would potentially ruin them financially. They’re stuck with cotton, though the crop will eventually have to leave production in the state.

Cotton helped build Arizona and continues to have a strong influence in the state, but for how long should the industry be in such a water-deprived land? It is an ongoing conversation that will influence more than just the farmers struggling to make a living during the drought. It will influence nature, politics, health, immigration, and emigration from the state for years to come.


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