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Alice Johnson-McKinney stays on independent path

Alice Johnson McKinney at the Stanfield homestead where she has lived since 1969. Photo by Victor Moreno

Alice Kulbeth Johnson-McKinney first traveled from Arkansas to Arizona in 1955 at age 15.

“My dad had a heart condition, and the doctor said, ‘If you lived in a warmer climate and didn’t work so hard, you could increase your life expectancy.’ He had a brother that worked for the mines in Globe, so we sold the house and everything and moved to Arizona.”

It was just the beginning of a remarkable life that included picking cotton, performing country music, waitressing, flipping houses before it was cool, marrying four times (twice to the same man), being caretaker to ailing spouses and standing centerstage in one of the most iconic friendships in Pinal County history.

“Oh, she’s a great lady,” said Paul Shirk, president of the Maricopa Historical Society. “And she has so many stories. Every time I talk to her, I hear a story I haven’t heard before.”

People like to ask her for stories about John Wayne, but she likes to share the full history as much as she can while she’s still here and can remember the details.

“There’s not too many of us left, the older farmers,” she said. “We’re getting old and passing on.”

In the 1950s, Johnson-McKinney’s father was a logger and took a little time to land a job with the Globe mining companies. Back in Arkansas he had played fiddle in a country band that also included 11-year-old Alice on upright bass and her little brother Larry playing mandolin/guitar. They had a regular gig on a local radio station. Based on that youthful experience, Alice and Larry landed jobs in Arizona before their parents did.

She marched into a Globe radio station and said they wanted to play on air and get paid.

Johnson-McKinney keeps a collection of family photos, including this one of her and her brother when they were a musical act in the 1950s.

“She said, ‘We can’t pay you unless you get sponsors,’” Alice recalled. “So, I went to town to a men’s store, and they said they’d be a sponsor. And I went to a furniture store, and they were a sponsor. We went back to the radio station, so they gave us a 30-minute program on Saturday mornings, and they paid us.”

She also landed a job as a car-hop at a foot-long hot dog place in Chandler.

Johnson-McKinney lasted in Globe through six weeks of school before deciding to return to her grandparents in Arkansas and finish high school in a school with more amenities. She also picked a lot of cotton on their small farm, up to 300 pounds a day while daydreaming of being a movie star. After graduation, she returned to Arizona.

When she was 19 and Larry was 14, they went to California to make a record. While waiting for their own recording session, Alice ended up recording two lines of a commercial for a clothing outlet because the chosen model could not fake a southern accent. They drew the interest of a talent scout, but their parents were not prepared to quit their jobs in Globe.

By 1965, Alice was married and divorced with a 6-year-old daughter, Becky, when she was waitressing at Copper Hills Restaurant in Globe. The owner, local icon Danko Gurovich, set her up on a blind date with a much-older, well-to-do farmer named Louis Johnson. It definitely was not a meet-cute.

John Wayne and Louis Johnson at their annual cattle sale.
Alice knew John Wayne during the last decade of his life through his friendship and partnership with her husband Louis Johnson.

“I was supposed to meet Louis at Durant’s Restaurant in Phoenix. It’s an hour and a half drive from Globe, and I never had gone on a blind date, so I just decided not to go. I didn’t show up,” she said. “Well, apparently he had had John Wayne fly over and was with him at Durant’s. Louis was really embarrassed and took a lot of razzing from the Duke because I didn’t show up.”

Johnson and Wayne had been partners growing cotton in Pinal County since 1958. Widely dubbed the best cotton farmer in the state, Johnson grew up picking cotton in Arizona and bought his first acres near Stanfield for $50 an acre when he was just 19.

“The Anderson Clayton Company would buy the land for you,” Johnson-McKinney said. “You would agree to use his gins, and then you just paid them back.”

Johnson and Wayne eventually combined their neighboring properties, and Johnson managed the 10,000 acres.

By 1965, when Gurovich tried to be matchmaker, Johnson and Wayne were moving into the cattle business after the federal government cut back on water allotments for cotton. Able to grow cotton on only a section of his land, Johnson created a feedlot.

He and Wayne put together 50,000 acres for a grassland ranch near Springerville in Apache County and bought purebred Herefords, paying over $100,000 for a single bull. Wayne and Johnson were in the middle of the effort to construct the 26 Bar Ranch when Alice came into the picture.

The day after that failed blind date, Gurovich pushed Alice to call Johnson and apologize. “Out of sympathy, I made another date with him because he asked me to bring Becky along. So, I said, ‘That’s pretty smart.’”

The 26 Bar Ranch sales barn on White and Parker Road. Photo by Kyle Norby

That first date was to the ranch he and Wayne were putting together. “Everyone” had told Alice how smart Johnson was. While that was not her first impression, she said she soon learned “everyone” was right. Johnson was intelligent, wise and a heck of a farmer.

“He wasn’t a big man, but his heart made up for it.”

She dated Johnson for a while, but Becky’s father came back into the picture. She decided to try marriage with him again for Becky’s sake. Not only did it break Johnson’s heart, but it didn’t take. “You should never marry a person a second time, because the problems are still there.”

When she divorced again, Johnson was waiting for her.

“We were very compatible,” she said. “Before we got married, we talked about a lot of things. It seemed like everything that suited him suited me… We were able to converse about everything.”

Johnson-McKinney said a level of trust built because she would never take money from him while they were dating. “I had a job and I was able to pay my bills and I had my own house.”

She also worked at a bank for a time and at Roosevelt Lake Estates, where she waitressed.

She married Louis Johnson in 1969, and they moved to the ranch between Stanfield and Maricopa, where they were surrounded by cotton.

Alice and Louis Johnson

“When I first came here in ’69, I don’t think the road had been paved that many years,” she said of Maricopa. “It looked like Stanfield. It had a bar and a service station and a small grocery store.”

Never one to be idle, she got to work in the four-acre yard and planted trees all over the property. She wanted evergreens to remind her of the pines in Arkansas. She and her brother stuccoed the 17-year-old, block house, a large but modest home.

Still sensing she was bored and a little isolated as a young woman used to working, Johnson had friend Verna Cooper take his wife to a meeting of the Cotton Wives Club, part of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association. Under Cooper’s wing, Alice joined the club and eventually became president. She still maintains friendships from the group.

Johnson and Wayne had started their annual cattle sale in 1968 at the Stanfield farm. He and Wayne trucked bulls and heifers down from Springerville. The sale started small but grew to national renown.

“One year we had ranches represented from 37 states,” Johnson-McKinney said. “John Wayne being a partner didn’t hurt any, as far as people wanted to see him, but the cattle were very good. That took precedent over celebrities.”

Alice proving to her new husband and friends she could pick cotton.

Louis Johnson did not leave cotton behind.

“He stayed with it. He wasn’t playing golf. He wasn’t going on vacation. He was looking at it every day,” Johnson-McKinney said. “He would look at the cotton in the morning with the sun shining on it from one direction, and in the evening he would look at it with the sun from the west shining on it.

“He said anytime you see a shoot off the main stem and there are four cotton bolls in there, it means you’re gonna get four bales per acre.”

Each year, Wayne and Johnson had a bet that if Johnson produced four bales of cotton per acre, Wayne would buy him a Cadillac. If not, Johnson would buy Wayne a car. Johnson received a Cadillac every year but one.

They played high-stakes jokes on each other as well. When Wayne said the Johnsons could eat free at Danko Gurovich’s restaurant, Johnson took full advantage one evening. He made off with a case of vodka and boxes of steaks, shrimp and bacon.

“They didn’t have enough bacon the next morning to serve in the restaurant,” Johnson-McKinney said. “We had bacon. I had an aunt that lived down the road, and we took it to her, and she divided it with all her neighbors down the street.”

Johnson and Gurovich also pretended to buy a racehorse named Snickerbar Dan, giving Wayne a share for $12,500. The horse did not exist.

Still, Wayne trusted Johnson when it came to business.

“Louis saved him,” Johnson-McKinney said. “He was in financial duress. They were repossessing all the farm stuff. He bought this farmland and didn’t know what he was doing.”

Alice Johnson-McKinney keeps books of photos from the 26 Bar Ranch days.

She said Wayne was actually “pretty gullible” and could be suckered in by just about anyone with an investment scheme until he got in the habit of turning them over to Johnson first. They were, in fact, like family, each called “uncle” by the other’s kids.

Alice speaks of The Duke with great affection. She said he felt perfectly at home in Maricopa and Stanfield and at the Johnson house in particular.

“He loved coming here. He liked visiting with the people, with the locals,” she said. “Even when he came and it wasn’t bull sale time, we’d have some local people [like Donna and Jimmie Kerr] come out and have dinner. He liked the ranch and farm people.

“He was just like he is. He either was not an actor, or he was acting all the time. What you see on screen is just the way he is in person.”

The Johnsons visited Wayne several times when he was filming on location, having dinner with him and Katharine Hepburn in Oregon during “Rooster Cogburn” and dropping in on him in Texas during “The Cowboys” and for the Houston premiere of “Hellfighters.”

John Wayne filming “The Cowboys” in Texas, where the Johnsons visited him on set.

Back at home, Alice still needed intellectual stimulation. She floated the idea of going back to college, but Louis couldn’t agree to that. So, when her stepson Johnny went off to New Mexico State University, she had him buy books for her.

“When Louis went to work at 4 o’clock in the morning, I would just read,” she said.

In the mid-1970s, when beef went into a slump, Alice and Becky started “flipping” houses. With money invested from the sale of her home after she married Johnson, McKinney bought a second house. She and Becky worked it into shape and sold it two months later for a profit.

“Becky and I flipped before flipping was flipping,” she said.

They continued that process through a series of houses as 50-50 partners. Then they decided to keep some of the houses they flipped to put up for rent as mines shut down around Casa Grande during a strike.

Alice Johnson-McKinney. Photo by Kyle Norby

“Men were going to other states for work. Women were wanting to reunite with the family,” she said. “I could give them $5,000 for their house, and they would sign it over to us. We didn’t have to go and borrow the money. You could assume somebody else’s mortgage, back in that day. You can’t do that now.”

Word got around among those who were losing their homes in Casa Grande that Alice and Becky would buy it for $2,000-$5,000, and they wouldn’t have to ruin their credit.

“That was very lucrative, because they might have paid on that house 10-15 years,” Johnson-McKinney said. “That’s how Becky and I formed a business, and now she has rental properties.”

Alice gave her own house the works, too.

“The master bedroom had its own bathroom, but all the other bedrooms had to share a common bathroom down the hall, and I didn’t like that,” she said. “I made all the bedrooms bigger, and they have their own bathrooms.”

She had told Johnson what elements she might want if she built her dream house. That included a deck, a dome and skylights to see the stars.

He gave her carte blanche to do whatever she wanted to the house. The result is a unique ranch house that is both western and Hollywood. She maintains a John Wayne suite, but also has The Duke memorabilia spread throughout the house. There are two kitchens, though she declares she’s not much of a cook. There is a bar, a pool and a tennis court. There are also unique family paintings.

Detail of one of the family paintings done of Louis, Alice and Becky.

After Wayne died of cancer in 1979, the Johnsons began selling off some of their assets as well. Alice and Becky continued their construction business and built houses for all the kids in the blended family. Then, as the end of the century neared, Louis fell ill.

“One day, everything was normal, and the next day, it was never the same,” Johnson-McKinney said.

After a grueling battle, Louis Johnson died of cancer in 2001.

Alice and Verne McKinney

That left Alice taking care of much of their assets around the country including an office building in Montana. She also bought a home there. She had to travel to Billings with a nephew to deal with a legal issue concerning the office building. There, she met a local rodeo cowboy and truck driver named Verne McKinney, who had been single for 30 years and had just retired.

Dancing in the Northern Hotel, they hit it off quickly.

After a long-distance correspondence, Alice and Verne married in 2003. During 14 years of marriage, they did some world traveling, and Alice’s ring of acquaintances widened even more.

But life was never a breeze. Johnson-McKinney cared for her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother for the final three years of her life. Then cancer again hit home, taking Verne McKinney in 2017.

Alice continues to live independently but looked after. Her daughter lives in a house on the property, and there are laborers to help with upkeep.

She feels the housing developments in Maricopa inching closer and said she has had offers for her surrounding acreage. She now maintains 160 acres as a cushion.

“I won’t ever sell it,” she said. “This is my roots.”

This story appears in part in the January issue of InMaricopa.

Photos by Kyle Norby

University of Arizona’s Maricopa Agricultural Center had its flora and fauna on display along with labs, games, farm equipment and vendors for its popular Family Farm Day on Saturday, drawing crowds of local families to see what happens at the farm. The day included a petting zoo, cricket spitting, cockroach racing, birds, amphibians, cotton gin and more.

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Photo by Victor Moreno

By Fran Lyons

Vernon St. John
Age: 73
Hometown: Tolleson
Resides in: Hidden Valley
Education: ASU
Family: Wife Lynn; daughters Lesley and Verna; granddaughter Anastasia
Pets: American bulldog Diesel

A third-generation Arizonan, Vernon St. John was born in Phoenix and has worked with cattle all his life.

“I can remember feeding the cows before I was 5 years old, and when I drove the tractor, I couldn’t even reach the clutch,” St. John said with a big smile.

The owner of St. John Farm Fresh Meat, selling ranch-to-table beef, recalled his first memories of life on his family’s dairy farm on the west side of the Valley. St. John was raised on the farm and worked with his father, who mentored him in every step of the process of cultivating and caring for livestock.

“Cows are a lot smarter than you think,” St. John said. “You just have to be very careful when they get angry or irritable. You don’t want to be around kicking cows.”

St. John left the farm and went into the Army and overseas to Vietnam. The skills he learned added new possibilities to his life and livelihood going forward.

“I went into the service as a heavy-equipment operator. When I told my superiors that I had worked in a bank and could type, I was assigned to the job of financing clerk,” he said.

After leaving the service, St. John returned to Arizona and enrolled in college. There, he met his wife, Lynn, who was also a student at the school. The couple each went in different directions, career-wise, when they started their life together.

Lynn joined the world of business as a banker.

“I was a city girl who happened to love animals” she said.

Vernon immersed himself in the agricultural industry, doing what he loved to do, working with animals – cattle to be specific – and ranching.

He wears a variety of hats and is an expert in multiple aspects of his industry. One primary arena is cattle breeding via artificial insemination or AI. He has been employed at Select Sires for over 33 years as a certified AI specialist, sales representative and educator/instructor of programs.

“I trained people how to breed cows,” he said.

Select Sires is an agricultural cooperative that provides livestock breeders with a superior genetics program offering AI techniques and optimal reproduction outcomes. “AI isn’t always easy. It’s a science and everything has to be just right for calves to be born with ease and become healthy and strong,” St. John said.

The St. Johns, along with their two daughters, moved to Maricopa in 2004, establishing their 19-acre cattle ranch in Hidden Valley. St. John developed a program to raise cattle for beef that was analyzed by the U of A College of Agriculture & Life Science to be much lower than average in cholesterol. He did this by implementing the animals’ diet with chelated vitamins and minerals as well as high quality alfalfa and barley feed.

“I recommend using grains over grass for feed. It creates good marbling and flavor yet still maintains the health benefits of being lower in cholesterol,” St. John said. “This product is available for purchase here at the ranch.”

Photo by Victor Moreno

St. John Farm Fresh Meat sells:

  • Ground beef
  • Rib steaks
  • T-bone steaks
  • NY strip steak
  • Round steak
  • Tri-tip
  • Beef tenderloin
  • Top sirloin roast
  • Brisket
  • Chuck roast
  • Shoulder roast
  • BBQ ribs
  • Short ribs
  • Bones

St. John is also working on the concept of a “Farm to Grill” co-op. It involves investing in an animal raised for beef from birth to harvest. It includes a purchase fee for the animal and a fee per month for feed until product is ready for market.

This concept will revolve around the development of a breeding program utilizing the prized and rare Akaushi breed of cattle from Japan. “It is very similar to Kobe beef; we just don’t feed them beer,” he said.

The plan is to breed from embryos that are Akaushi DNA source verified and grow certified Akaushi cattle in the next 18 months. Superb quality, tenderness and flavor are the hallmarks of this ranch-to-table product. American-grown Akaushi cattle are predicted to revolutionize the beef industry and produce an extraordinary dining experience.


This story appears in the August issue of InMaricopa.

Photo by Jim Headley

In Arizona’s newly passed Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), farmers in Pinal County stand to lose two-thirds of the irrigation water they have been receiving from the Colorado River.

Brian Betcher, Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District

The DCP is an effort to keep the Colorado River’s major reservoirs from reaching catastrophically low levels. DCP goes into effect when levels in Lake Mead hit a specified low level of 1090 MSL (mean sea level). Lake Mead is currently at 1085 MSL, meaning water experts believe Arizona will likely lose quite a bit of their Colorado River allocations in 2020.

Brian Betcher, general manager of the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, testified twice before state legislative committees as they were forging and approving the DCP.

“Happy is not a great word,” Betcher said. “(I am) satisfied that they preserved what was agreed to in the steering committee.”

Betcher said the agriculture industry in Arizona was able to get the minimum amount of water necessary to keep ag alive in the agreement.

“It is the best that we could probably do in this environment. It is important to the state that the DCP gets done. We (ag) are the lowest priority water user group. There stands to be a huge potential for economic loss in the ag community in Pinal County,” Betcher said.

Without DCP in place, Arizona would still lose a total of 320,000-acre feet of water from the Colorado River. When the DCP is fully triggered, in the event Lake Mead gets below 1075 MSL (mean sea level), an extra 192,000-acre feet will be held back. This means Arizona effectively loses 512,000-acre feet of water from the Colorado River if the drought continues.

Also in the series Drought & Development
Councilman gives Arizona 30 years left to survive
GWR touts strong water future for Maricopa
O’Halleran: Drought means no shortage of water issues

Last year, Lake Mead hit 1076.54 MSL and, with the worst drought in a millennium continuing into its 21st year, hydrologists are not optimistic about Arizona’s ability to avoid the full implementation of DCP.

“In the current system, without a shortage, the first 300,000-acre foot of water that’s not going to long-term users is dedicated to CAP (Central Arizona Project) agriculture, of which Pinal County has the biggest percentage of that whole pool,” Betcher said.

If there is a water shortage in 2020, with the 512,000-acre foot reduction in effect, “that would wipe out all of the 300,000 acre-feet” in Pinal County’s CAP system.

“Without the DCP plan in effect, we would still have some water left but the lake (Mead) would be worse off,” Betcher said.

In a hypothetical irrigation water loss study, the University of Arizona found the effects on Pinal County and its economy could be enormous.

If there were a loss of 300,000-acre feet of water, the study estimated:

  • $63.5 million to $66.7 million loss in gross farm-gate sales (this accounts for 7 percent)
  • $94 million to $104 million loss in total county sales (farm and non-farm sales)
  • $31.7 million to $35 million loss in county value added (this includes net farm income, profits in other industries, employee compensation and tax revenues)
  • 240 to 480 loss in full-time and part-time jobs

If there are the expected DCP water shortages in 2020, there will be 105,000 acre-feet left that can go to CAP agriculture, according to Betcher. That amount will be focused primarily on Pinal County.

“But that is a reduction from 300,000-acre feet,” he said.

Currently, producers in the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District receive 82,000 acre-feet annually and that would be reduced to about 35,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River under DCP.

The loss of water from the Colorado leaves ag producers with only one answer, bolstering lowered river irrigation feeds with groundwater pumped from the aquifer.

Pumping groundwater is expensive and laborious, and everyone is trying to use less, not more, groundwater.

“We have been preparing for drought for a long time. We have access to a lot of old wells that have been drilled in the area for agriculture and we can bring them back online. It’s not cheap and it’s not easy,” Betcher said. “It’s not going to make up for the total loss. We will try to make up with as much as we can.”

He said they have told their district members that 30 to 40 percent of lands in the area could go fallow and not be farmed.

“We have been preparing for drought for a long time. We have access to a lot of old wells that have been drilled in the area for agriculture and we can bring them back online. It’s not cheap and it’s not easy.”

The Central Arizona Irrigation and Drainage District in the Eloy area said it could be worse for them, according to Betcher. He said it might be 40 to 50 percent of fields going fallow in the Eloy area.

“Now, we both use ‘might’ because we have never been faced with this since we’ve had CAP water,” Betcher said. “You’re trying to project what the loss of farmlands is going to be. A farmer is not going to plant a crop if he is not sure he has enough water to see it to harvest.”

Betcher said Colorado River water cutbacks to 105,000-acre feet in the CAP system will take Pinal County agriculture “right to the edge of sustainability.”

He added that these cuts, “for some may be too much. Farmers have been a resilient lot for a long, long time. We’ve been living in a world of conservation since 1980, when the ground water act was passed.”

Betcher said farmers of the area and the irrigation districts have masterfully achieved fantastic conservation rates since the 1980s.

In the 1980s, experts noticed that groundwater levels were falling. Arizona began a deliberate plan to use more surface water and not pump as much groundwater, Betcher said.

“They (ag producers) had every right to do their pumping. We have put water back, so we have a supply that we can use during a shortage. But these guys don’t want to pump any more than they have to. We sure hope we don’t have to do it very long.”

“There is some good news here because of what the state has done. Arizona has been a leader in the country in terms of their prior planning. They made a decision years ago that they were going to take as much water off the river as they possibly could. Partly because they were protecting their allocation against California and claiming they don’t need all the water they were given. We have been storing it underground,” he said.

Betcher said the cities have built underground storage facilities by running water into an underground basin and letting it percolate down into the groundwater. The plan is to use this water in times like the current drought.

This practice helps groundwater levels from naturally falling if left untouched and even helps raise groundwater levels because CAP water has been delivered in this area for years, groundwater pumping was reduced dramatically.

“The groundwater levels have actually come back up,” Betcher said. “We now have a lot more water in storage below ground then we had before CAP got here. We had depleted the groundwater. They (ag producers) had every right to do their pumping. We have put water back, so we have a supply that we can use during a shortage. But these guys don’t want to pump any more than they have to. We sure hope we don’t have to do it very long.”

Betcher said if this is a “mega-drought” Arizona could have another 10-15 years of these arid conditions, maybe even more years than 15. He said everyone has been careful with water since the early 2000s but it was clear that Arizona was in a serious drought by 2007.

“In 2007, the idea that we wouldn’t have enough water to get to 2030, still wasn’t on the radar screen,” Betcher said. “Then we’ve had some of the worst hydrology. We’ve had a couple of the worst years on record. There will be water if you can pay for it. Sometimes if you have 5 percent of a real expensive supply, maybe you can blend that into your rates and it becomes affordable.”

Betcher said the seriousness of water in Arizona is not overblown. He said if there is a “level one” shortage, there will not be a loss of water to the higher-priority users like cities.

“They won’t lose a drop of water. Their cost will go up because there will be fewer units delivered to CAP to recover their costs but there is no loss of water supplies. I spend 1 to 2 percent of my personal budget on my water. A farmer is at 25 to 30 percent of his budget in water costs,” Betcher said.

He said water users near the rivers do not have restrictions under the DCP because they are higher-priority users. The crisis only impacts the ag water users in the interior of the state.

“One man’s crisis is another man’s concern,” said Betcher. “The concern with the cities is once you get to a shortage, will it continue to accelerate and get worse? Then they will get hit with loss of water. They are trying to do everything they can to protect themselves. It would be bad for the state if that happens.”

He said Pinal County is a great place to grow crops, if you have the water to do it. On average, Pinal County farmers can get three crops harvested in a year, while most farmers in the nation only get one.

He said with water cuts that are expected to hit agriculture, farmers stand to lose income.

“If they stay in business, they’re still going to buy less. Whatever entities gain their economic survival from agriculture, those will end up shrinking,” he said.

An additional problem for farmers, who let fields go fallow, is dust maintenance. Growers are required to take care of their fields by law even if they’re not growing a crop, spending money to control dust while not getting any income from the fields means added expense for farmers.

“If you get the big dust storm coming through, you’re going to have more land exposed to that because it’s not going to have crops on it,” Betcher said.

Photo by Jim Headley

Pinal County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution Jan. 9 to urge the state Legislature “to provide sufficient funds to Pinal Agricultural Enterprises to access the ground water necessary to allow the Pinal County agricultural economy to continue when Colorado River water is limited.”

To make its case, the resolution cites statistics on the agricultural importance of Pinal County from a 2018 study by University of Arizona’s Department of Agriculture and Resources Economics.

Top 1% in U.S. counties in cotton, cottonseed sales, milk sales, inventories of cattle and calves
Top 2% in U.S. counties in total value of agriculture sales
Top 4% in U.S. counties in acreage for barley, corn, forage crops
Top 7% in U.S. counties in vegetables, fruit and nuts production
3,804 direct jobs
1,343 indirect jobs
45% of Arizona’s cattle and calf sales

41% of Arizona’s cotton production
39% of Arizona’s milk production
33% of county’s manufacturing wages paid
25% of all manufacturing jobs
$1.1 billion in sales (2016)
The study estimated damage of $94 million to $104 million if irrigation decrease were a hypothetical water loss of 300,000 acre feet.


Source: University of Arizona’s Department of Agriculture and Resources Economics

This item appears in the February issue of InMaricopa.

From left, Carlos Ibarra Sr., Ak-Chin Councilmember Ann Marie Antone and Carlos Ibarra Jr. show off seed packets at the groundbreaking for Ibarra Family Farms at the Santa Cruz Commerce Center. Photo by Michelle Chance

The Ak-Chin Indian Community has deep roots in traditional agriculture. In July, it welcomed a new kind of agribusiness to its enterprise – hydroponics.

Ibarra Family Farms recently broke ground on a 1.2-acre parcel at Santa Cruz Commerce Center and hopes to be ready for production before January.

“Although it’s different technology, we are longtime farmers, and this is going to work out perfect together,” said Ak-Chin Tribal Council Member Ann Marie Antone during a groundbreaking ceremony July 19.

Hydroponics is a soilless cultivation that utilizes recycled nutrient solution to grow small crops. Ibarra Family Farms estimates it will save up to 95 percent of traditional water usage, pumped from underground Ak-Chin water.

Owner Carlos Ibarra, his wife, sons and daughter will operate their future 16,128-square-foot greenhouse that is unlike any other in the country.

“What I did with this and the design is I adapted everything, technologies from different parts of the world, and I’m trying to adapt it to Arizona weather conditions,” Ibarra said.

The greenhouse will be lower in height than traditional structures. A motor-operated weather station will open and close the roof automatically, depending on weather conditions.

The cosmopolitan operation will include hydroponic channels from Brazil, a Canadian greenhouse and various equipment from the United States.

Ibarra is a third-generation farmer with previous operations in Mexico spanning more than 25 years, growing a variety of crops from sugarcane to soy beans. His latest project will produce organically and conventionally grown lettuce, kale and spinach year-round, thanks to the adapted greenhouse design.

Ibarra’s son Carlos Ibarra Jr. will take up marketing for the Maricopa location. He hopes to bring a fresh perspective to the farm’s philosophy as the next Ibarra generation to cultivate the family business.

“It’s also good to have the best of both worlds; the older generation and our new generation, in a more sustainable way, a greener way,” Ibarra Jr. said.

As the farm grows, Ibarra Jr. would like to explore solar power options to its greenhouse and include sustainable friendly packaging and labeling for its produce.

Phase 2 of the project could see new crops including edible flowers and other vegetables.

Maria Hernandez, vice chair of the Ak-Chin Industrial Park Board, said the Ibarra Family Farms project has been two years in the making. She views the operation as the beginning of what’s next in the local agro-industry.

“We’re a farming community, but this is a different aspect of farming where we are getting into more of what’s in the future: Hydroponics,” Hernandez said. “It was kind of exciting because this is what we always wanted this area to be: More agribusiness type.”

This story appears in the August issue of InMaricopa.

Rick Brower works with guayule at Beem Biologics as operations manager. Photo by Mason Callejas

By Fran Lyons

Guayule (gwa yoo lee). Not a well-known word. If you haven’t heard it before, you probably will, especially if you live in Maricopa.

Guayule is a silver-leaved shrub of the daisy family indigenous to the southwestern United States and Mexico. It grows locally.

It was cultivated in the early 20th century by industry and investment pioneers such as Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller for its promise to produce rubber. The sap of the plant yielded a high volume of latex that produced a rubber compound.

It served a multitude of applications including the World War II effort led by Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was a colonel in the Army in a study of guayule as an alternative to rubber.

Fast-forward to 2014. Lance Beem, a plant physiologist working at the University of California-Davis, conducted trials on the guayule plant for its potential to increase crop growth. He found he was really onto something significant and far-reaching.

He discovered he could extract from the guayule plant a property that would increase crop yield to growers. It is called ISO NPK. It’s a bio fertilizer. It is naturally sourced, non-toxic and certified organic.

Photo by Mason Callejas

Chief Operations Officer Ben Cloud said ISO NPK offers one of the most potent fertility products on the market. “We call it ‘giving your crops wings.’ Plants actually respond to an application with rising branches and leaves for a physically visible response.”

Events shaped rapidly from this discovery. Beem Biologics was established in 2014. Four founding members – CEO/Chairman Stephen Butler, PhD, COO Ben Cloud, Director Lance Beem and Director Rodolfo Manzone, PhD – came on board with experience and expert skills to develop a new product with great possibility.

Ben Cloud. Photo by Mason Callejas

Development continued with the founders opening a facility in Maricopa, a rich, agricultural resource area that has the guayule shrub growing in abundance. Research and development continues at UC-Davis.

The purpose became clear to the founders: “Develop and supply biological compounds that are naturally derived and sustainable for use in growing crops.”

Beem Biologics has entered a licensing agreement with one of the largest crop protection industries in the world – Arysta LifeScience – and has conducted successful, broad-spectrum field trials of ISO NPK.

“Our mission is to become a premium provider of breakthrough biological technologies throughout the world,” Cloud said. “The impetus for this shift is the awareness of the agriculture industry and communities at large, to see the opportunity and benefit of using naturally derived compounds. They are safe, economical and highly effective in increasing crop yield for growers.”

Biological compounds, or AG biologicals, provide many of the answers that face the chemical crop industry.

“At Beem Biologicals, we intend to advance ‘Healthy Soil, Healthy Food and a Healthy Planet, based on science,’” Cloud said.

Beem Biologics currently has an inventory that would provide product to 1 million acres. Beginning in 2019, marketing will expand and the projected growth will be 10 million acres of product coverage to meet market demands over the next five years, according to its business plan.

Rick Brower is the operations manager. He is an Arizona native who has lived in Maricopa since 1988.

“I have been working with the potential of the guayule shrub for 10 years, and I am really excited to be here in Maricopa at this amazing time to hit the ground running,” he said. “Our timing is right to move away from conventional chemical products that deplete the soil to a non-toxic, organic product that revitalizes and enhances crops.”

This story appears in the July issue of InMaricopa.

Mark Smith (wearing red rose), formerly of Maricopa, received UofA's Lifetime Achievement Award last month, 19 years after his father John Smith (in red tie), who still lives in Maricopa, received the same award. Submitted photo

Maricopa farming pioneer John Smith and his son Mark are familiar with cultivating growth in their agricultural communities.

John farmed cotton and other crops here since the early 1950s, and Mark is president of Smith Farms Company of Yuma Inc.

Together, they share more than blood and green thumbs.

In 1998, John Smith received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Nineteen years later, Mark Smith received it, too.

On May 5, the family traveled to Tucson to honor Mark’s achievement during an awards ceremony held at the college.

A representative from the university said John and Mark are the first father and son combination to be awarded the distinction.

Unsurprisingly, his son’s accomplishment makes John Smith happy, but he said it also makes him proud of Maricopa High School.

According to a biography provided by the U of A, Mark was one of the first graduates of the agricultural business curriculum offered by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at U of A. He received a Bachelor of Science from the school in Agronomy and Plant Genetics and Agricultural Business in 1977.

But before that, he was a graduate of MHS.

“Maricopa had a pretty good little school system at the time,” John said. “Having a school system that small was not a thing that most people thought they could get their kids educated in, but they could here.”

John Smith shows the award he received from U of A in 1998. He has been involved in Maricopa agriculture since the 1950s. Photo by Michelle Chance

Smith Farms Genesis in Cotton Country

John himself is no stranger to reaping the benefits from the seeds he sowed in Maricopa, or as he remembers the town in the 1950s, “cotton country.”

“(Back then) there were 16 or 17 cotton gins in the west end of Pinal County, and today there may be one, may be two,” John said.

After graduating from U of A with a B.S. in Business in 1950, he took a job as a foreman on a cotton farm west of Maricopa.

Not only was John the boss, but he also did most of the work.

“There wasn’t anybody out there then to help,” he said. So he had to do a little extra.

A few years later in 1953, he bought farmland in Maricopa with partner Fred Enke.

During their first growing season, Smith said he and Enke labored in the fields themselves, irrigating, weeding and driving tractors.

When the work was finished, Enke would return to a different field – the football field.

Smith said Enke played for professional football teams in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit.

“You don’t see many pro quarterbacks going to work out there chopping weeds,” Smith said. “Not any I know, anyhow.”

Enke was the exception.

Smith Homestead Survives Development

As the farm grew, so did necessity. John and his wife Mary Lou needed a house near the farm.

“There were no places to live in Maricopa,” John said.

So, in the mid-1950s, the couple built a house in the middle of farmland in what is now The Villages subdivision.

Today the sprawling ranch-style home, with its tall, mature trees is an icon of heritage, as well as a portrait of defiance inside the neighborhood of much newer homes.

When developers began eyeing Maricopa for housing growth in the early 2000s, the Smiths fought to keep their property.

Eventually, John sold most of his farmland in the newly incorporated city, but he and Mary Lou held onto the homestead.

“I just told them ‘We’re not going to move. If you want to buy the land, well the house is going to stay and we’re going to stay in it,’” Smith recalled telling developers.

His loyalty to the land might have something to do with the years he worked to develop it through various boards.

According to another biography provided by the U of A, “He was a member of the Site Selection committee appointed by the Board of Regents to locate a new research farm after the College of Agriculture was instructed to close (two other centers).”

The location of the new research farm Smith helped to select? The Maricopa Agricultural Center.

His work didn’t stop there. Smith also served 27 years as president on the board of directors of the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District.

The biography supplied by the college also highlights Smith’s work in “negotiations for the implementation of the Central Arizona Project and the delivery and distribution of Colorado River water.”

Not one to take all the credit, Smith said his accomplishments were a “collective effort.”

The lineage of agriculturalists does not stop with Mark. His brothers Jim and Matt own a turf farm in Maricopa named Southwest Sod.

“I think it’s wonderful. I’m very proud of all of them,” Mary Lou Smith said of her husband and children.

Maricopa Farmers Adapt

Eventually, the Smith-Enke farming empire expanded so much the partners split.

“We had plenty of land and plenty of equipment for both of us,” John Smith said. “We didn’t even have a lawyer to write it up; we just wrote it out on a piece of paper and it still stood.”

Smith Farms grew to include not only cotton, but a vast pecan orchard, as well as grain and alfalfa crops.

Smith still owns and leases farmland in California, but he said his responsibilities nowadays are mostly to himself.

Sitting inside their home that once stood surrounded by cotton, John and Mary Lou Smith discussed the change in life they’ve experienced throughout Maricopa’s growing pains.

“Everything always looks better looking back,” John Smith said.

And even now, surrounded by houses instead of crops, one thing is for certain: The Smiths are here to stay.