Cotton, Long an Important Crop, Remains Valuable to AZ's Economy

By Ring, Bob | AZ Daily Star, April 17, 2014 | Go to article overview

Cotton, Long an Important Crop, Remains Valuable to AZ's Economy


Ring, Bob, AZ Daily Star


According to cotton historian Stephen Yafa, "cotton was domesticated simultaneously in India and Peru some 5,500 years ago." Cotton, and cloth made from it, gradually moved west to Europe and north to Mexico and beyond, so when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Bahama Islands in 1492, he found it growing there.

Cotton was a "prime motive for the colonization of the New World," provided "economic muscle" to the textile industry in newly independent America and remains one of the most important crops in the country. Ninety-five percent of all the cotton grown around the world today is the short-fiber upland variety.

Cotton in early Arizona

Cotton moved north into Arizona from Mexico more than 2,000 years ago. There is archaeological evidence of cotton-growing, cloth- making and cottonseed cuisine in Southern Arizona as early as 400 BC .

When Father Eusebio Kino first explored the Santa Cruz Valley in the 1690s, he found Native Americans growing, wearing and eating cotton.

Cotton cultivation continued in Arizona throughout the Spanish Colonial, Mexican, Arizona Territorial and early Arizona Statehood periods. This was upland cotton -- sometimes called Mexican cotton - - produced mostly for local consumption.

Then, in the last decades of the 1800s, long-fiber cotton was developed in the hot, dry climate of Egypt. Egyptian cotton brought a soft, silky feel, important to high-end cloth manufacturers in America, and also added durability, making it attractive as an industrial fabric. But long-fiber cotton required a longer growing season than the humid Southern United States could provide.

So in 1900, Egyptian cotton was introduced into the Egypt-like environment of Arizona's Salt River Valley. Federal engineers began tinkering at an experimental farm in Sacaton, cultivating cotton hybrids until achieving a new cotton variety, with extra-long fibers and super durability, named Pima after the Pima Indians who grew it.

Pima cotton was released into the market in 1910 and reached 7,300 acres of production by 1916.

Cotton boom and bust

During World War I an embargo was placed on Egypt, "the main supplier of industrial strength cotton, which was needed for airplane wings, tires and dirigibles." Pima cotton was the answer, and a cotton boom started in Arizona.

Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. bought thousands of acres southwest of Phoenix and brought them hurriedly into production, pioneering the conversion of desert to irrigated farmland. The company opened a factory next to the cotton fields and soon the town of Goodyear developed. Firestone and Dunlop soon joined Goodyear in the valley. Farmers in Yuma and the Santa Cruz Valley joined the boom.

By 1920, there were almost 230,000 acres of cotton in the state. Arizona cotton was so profitable that farmers stopped producing almost all other crops .

But the boom didn't last. With the end of World War I, the military canceled many of its contracts, and Egyptian cotton flooded the U.S. market and drove the price of Arizona's Pima cotton to below the cost to grow it -- creating financial havoc. …

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