Tribal farms are a growing part of Arizona's economy


PHOENIX (AP) - As development eats up agricultural land in metropolitan Phoenix, farms on American Indian land are a growing part of Arizona's agricultural economy.

Tribes around the Phoenix metro area are growing everything from alfalfa and pecans to citrus and barley, then selling to major companies hungry for their crops.

Some experts say that if sprawl continues, tribal farms could be responsible for carrying the tradition into the future.

''Tribes came up with some of the most innovative agriculture techniques for this area,'' said Pat Mariella, director of the American Indian Policy and Leadership Development Center at Arizona State University, citing irrigation methods and other breakthroughs.

Before casinos, agriculture was a source of revenue as well as part of tradition and nutrition, she said.

In past decades, the tribes' farming efforts were hindered by a lack of water. But water-rights settlements over the past two decades allowed farms to flourish.

Now that demand for the tribes' agricultural products is increasing, some plan to expand even more.

There are at least a half-dozen Indian farming operations scattered throughout the state. The two closest to the Phoenix area are Gila River Farms and Fort McDowell, which straddles the Verde River in the northeast Valley.

Last year, the Gila River Farms operation did nearly $11 million in sales; Fort McDowell, $3 million.

The farms' products are increasingly finding their way into local farmers markets, into grocery stores in metro Phoenix, and even overseas through lucrative contracts.

Gila River Farms, a 16,000-acre operation 40 miles south of Phoenix, sells its citrus to the Sunkist System/Mesa Cooperative and its barley to Shamrock Farms, where it is used as feed for dairy cows.

The farm, which produces cotton, alfalfa and 10 types of citrus, also harvested 6,000 pounds of desert durum wheat in June. It was sold to Arizona Grain Inc. and then sent to Italy to make pasta, said Bobby Stone, general manager of Gila River Farms.

The Fort McDowell Tribal Farm, at just under 2,000 acres, is a small operation compared with that at Gila River.

Still, it does a brisk business, with 625 acres of alfalfa, 1,000 acres of pecan trees and 325 acres of citrus.

Alfalfa has become a staple for the tribe, which produces nearly 8 tons of the livestock feed each year. Crews will harvest each patch as many as seven times over the course of the summer.

''The alfalfa goes to the horse market,'' said Harold Payne, the farm's general manager. ''We're fortunate to be located at the edge of Scottsdale, Cave Creek, north Phoenix and Payson.

''All of our alfalfa is sold in the hay market. We'll deliver or they'll pick [it] up in their own vehicles.''

In the fall, the farm will harvest about 4 million pounds of citrus, which is later sold to the Sunkist System/Mesa Citrus Cooperative, which distributes the fruit to markets locally and nationally.