Farming on the Mother Road - 8
Chris Clayton DTN Ag Policy Editor
Mon Sep 15, 2014 08:51 AM CDT
(Page 1 of 2)

NEEDLES, Calif. (DTN) -- The Mohave Valley can feel like a blast furnace in the summer, though locals will tell you that any day under 108 Fahrenheit is mild. It's a dry heat, after all.

Del Wakimoto, farm manager for AVI KWA'AME Farms, scans the farm-management program he has helped create for the farm, which is owned by the Mojave Tribe near Needles, Calif. Del's daughter, Jennifer, is the farm's marketing manager for cotton. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

While the desert heat stands out, the valley has another obvious feature with the flowing blue waters of the Colorado River.

As the first stop in California along Route 66, Needles gets a bum rap as the place in "Grapes of Wrath" where the Joad family first heard the term "Okies" while swimming in the river. Californians didn't want migrant workers and in reality there were more migrants than farm jobs. Farther down Route 66, closer to Daggett, Calif., the empty agricultural inspection station still stands where state troopers would actually block migrant families from traveling farther into California if they didn't have any money or couldn't prove they had awaiting jobs.

Needles itself is a small town of about 4,000 people, but its surrounding area takes in a larger population as California, Arizona and Nevada all intersect in about a 25-mile radius. The Colorado River also provides the Mohave Valley area with a checkerboard of green blocks and crop circles stretching from Needles almost up to Laughlin, Nev.

It's in those patches of irrigated ground where the Fort Mojave Tribe has about 15,000 acres of farmland, most of which is operated by AVI KWA 'AME Farms. That's a private corporation started by the Mojave Tribe in the mid-1980s to better manage the tribe's ground and water rights along the valley.

The tribe's water rights amount to 132,700 acre feet annually from the Colorado River. The allocation stems from a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case and subsequent settlement over water rights between Arizona and California, explained John Algots, resource director for the tribe and a board member for AVI KWA 'AME Farms.

The tribe grows about 11,000 acres of cotton, alfalfa, small grains and grass seeds. Another 4,000 acres is leased to other area farmers. Crops demand a lot of water in the Mohave Valley. In general, the tribe uses 4 to 5 acre feet per year for cotton while alfalfa might use double that amount.

Cotton is the main cash crop, grown on about 4,500 acres and producing roughly 12,300 bales. The farm also has its own gin and marketing office for cotton.

"Cotton has traditionally been grown here," Algots said. "It's reasonably adaptable to this climate."

The arid nature of the desert makes it difficult to time hay baling. Often hay is cut, then it becomes difficult to bale because of the lack of moisture. Still, the tribe relies heavily on its hay production. Normally, the tribe delivers hay to about a 200-mile radius, but dairy farmers in the drought-stricken Central Valley have stretched hay deliveries as far as 350 miles.

"The Central Valley is kind of a disaster zone," said Algots. "They can't grow any hay over there, so they are going out farther to find hay wherever they can get it at whatever it costs. With the price of milk, they can afford to do that."

Farm manager Del Wakimoto was leasing ground from the tribe when he volunteered as a board member for the farm. He later was drafted to manage the operation. Wakimoto said the tribal council had the wisdom to separate the farm from the tribal operations.

Wakimoto also believes the tribe has developed over time one of the best, least-known farm-management programs in the business. "We started off on Palm Pilots," he said. "Remember those?"

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