Minnesota-based agri-business Riverview finds Wilcox appealing


TED SIMONS: COMING UP ON "ARIZONA HORIZON" WE GO TO WILLCOX, WHERE RANCHERS AND FARMERS ARE WORRIED ABOUT WATER.
TED SIMONS: AGRICULTURE HAS LONG BEEN THE ECONOMIC DRIVER IN AND AROUND WILLCOX, BUT GROWTH HAS RAISED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE STABILITY OF THE REGION. VANESSA BARCHFIELD WENT TO VISIT SOME OF THE NEW FARMING AREAS IN THE AREA.
VANESSA MARSHFIELD: THIS MINNESOTA-BASED BUSINESS FOUGHT THIS FARM IN 2015.
MOIRIA WHITE: OUR PRIMARY FOCUS IS HEIFER DEVELOPMENT. SO WE GET EVERY 90-DAY-HEIFER COMES TO THIS SITE AT 90 DAYS OLD.
VANESSA MARSHFIELD: THEY ALSO GROW CORN AND GRAIN, AND MILK, 7500 COWS A DAY. THAT'S ENOUGH TO FILL EIGHT TRUCKS THAT LEAVE THE SITE DAILY. THE COMPANY ALSO HAS OPERATIONS IN MINNESOTA, SOUTH DAKOTA, AND NEBRASKA. WHAT WAS IT THAT ATTRACTED THEM HERE?
MOIRIA WHITE: THE CLIMATE. WE CAN RAISE THESE HEIFERS FOR HALF OF THE COST DOWN THERE. THE CLIMATE IS AWESOME. WHO WOULDN'T WANT TO GROW UP IN WILLCOX.
VANESSA MARSHFIELD: THAT GOOD WEATHER HAS DRAWN FARMERS TO THIS AREA FOR DECADES, AS HAS THE CHEAP LAND AND VIRTUALLY FREE WATER. THE ONLY COST OF WATER IS THE PRICE OF PUTTING IN A PUMP AND POWERING IT. WHILE TUCSON AND PHOENIX GET MOST OF THEIR WATER FROM THE COLORA O RIVER, THIS PART OF THE STATE RELIES ENTIRELY ON GROUNDWATER, AND ITS EXTRACTION IS UNREGULATED.
LAUREL LACHER: THE PERSON WHO DRILLS THE DEEPEST AND PUMPS THE HARDEST GETS THE MOST WATER.
VANESSA MARSHFIELD: THE WILLCOX BASIN COVERS JUST UNDER 2,000 SQUARE MILES, AND IT IS A CLOSED MASON. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? IT'S LIKE A BIG UNDERGROUND BOWL OF WATER, AND THE WELLS ACT LIKE STRAWS.
LAUREL LACHER: EVENTUALLY THE WELLS ARE ALL SUCKING FROM THE SAME BOWL OF WATER, AND EVENTUALLY WORKING TOGETHER TO HELP DRAIN THAT BOWL, SIMILAR TO IF YOU WERE JUST, YOU KNOW, DRINKING A GLASS OF WATER WITH A STRAW AND YOU SUCKED IT DRY.
VANESSA MARSHFIELD: A FEW YEARS AGO, SOME RESIDENTS WITH SHORTER STRAWS STARTED HAVING PROBLEMS. THEIR DOMESTIC WELLS WERE GOING DRY. A GROUP OF PEOPLE ORGANIZED TO ASK THE STATE TO INTERVENE. LEGISLATORS AND THE DEPARTMENT OF WATER RESOURCES HELD A SERIES OF MEETINGS IN THE AREA, INCLUDING THIS ONE IN 2014.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: WATER IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE.
VANESSA MARSHFIELD: THE PUSH TO REGULATE GROUNDWATER USE HERE ULTIMATELY FAILED. PEGGY SAYS STILL IT WAS RESIDENTS WHO AT FIRST WERE CALLING ON THE STATE TO INTERVENE. AS A WHOLE, THE COMMUNITY IS FAIRLY REGULATION ADVERSE.
PEGGY JUDD: I THINK OUR WILL IS TO GO ON LIKE IT IS, AND TO TAKE OUR CHANCES, AND THEN ALSO WE PRAY FOR RAIN.
LAUREL LACHER: THE GROUNDWATER DEPLETION IN WILLCOX BASIN IS EXTREME ALREADY.
ROD KEELING: WE'RE PUMPING OUT ABOUT FIVE TIMES AS MUCH WATER AS IS BEING RECHARGED IN THIS BASIN.
VANESSA MARSHFIELD: HE SAYS HE HASN'T BEEN TOO AFFECTED YET. BUT OTHER FARMERS LIKE ALAN ROBBS HAVE SEEN THE WATER LEVEL IN THEIR WELLS DROP. ROBBS IS A SECOND GENERATION PISTACHIO FARMER IN WILLCOX. HE SAYS HIS WELL HAS DROPPED ABOUT 25 FEET. THAT'S ABOUT A FOOT A YEAR.
ALAN ROBBS: THERE ARE SOME AREAS SOUTH OF US WHERE IT DROPPED 35 TO 70 FOOT DEEP.
VANESSA MARSHFIELD: LAURA WALKER SAYS SOME FARMERS HAVE RESPONDED TO THE DROP BY EMPHASIZING CONSERVATION.
LAUREL LACHER: IN SOME CASES FARMERS HAVE TRANSITIONED FROM HIGH-VOLUME-USING CROPS TO LOWER-WATER-USING CROPS, MORE LIKE GRAPES.
VANESSA MARSHFIELD: AND THE AREA IS GOOD FOR GRAPES. SAYS ROD. HE AND HIS WIFE BOUGHT THEIR RANCH IN 2000, AND THEIR VINEYARD HAS BEEN IN BUSINESS FOR ABOUT A DECADE. KEELING SAYS THE VINE INDUSTRY IS ONE OF THE ANSWERS TO THE PROBLEMS.
ROD KEELING: IT USES LESS THAN ANY OTHER CROP HERE. AND IT'S A PERMANENT CROP. IT'S LIKE THE TREES. IT'S ALSO VERY HIGH VALUE, SO IF MY BROTHER WHO GROWS AN ACRE OF COTTON, AND I GROW AN ACRE OF GRAPES, MY GRAPES ARE WORTH BETWEEN 12 AND 25 TIMES MORE MONEY PER ACRE THAN THAT COTTON, AND HE USES SEVEN ACRE FEET, WHICH IS BASICALLY SEVEN FEET OF WATER ON TOP OF THE GROUND FOR THE ENTIRE YEAR, AND WE USE ABOUT 8 INCHES
VANESSA MARSHFIELD: BACK AT THE DAIRY FARM, MOIRIA WHITE SAYS THE OPERATION USES ABOUT 3.5 FEET OF WATER PER ACRE EACH YEAR. THE COMPANY WILL BREAK GROUND ON A SECOND FARM IN SEPTEMBER, WITH OPERATION SLATED TO BEGIN A YEAR LATER. SOME OF THE COMMUNITY RESPONDED WITH TREPIDATION.
MOIRIA WHITE: INITIALLY, AND EVEN FOR ME, AS A COMMUNITY MEMBER. I WAS LIKE, WHAT IS GOING ON? AND -- BUT AS -- AS PEOPLE COME AND GET TO KNOW US -- AND WE'RE VERY WELCOMING. WE WELCOME PEOPLE TO COME TO OUR SITE. WE WANT YOU TO COME AND SEE WHAT WE'RE DOING, BECAUSE WE FEEL LIKE WE'RE TRYING TO DO THE RIGHT THING, AND IF YOU HAVE CONCERNS, WE WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT.
VANESSA MARSHFIELD: SHE SAYS SHE UNDERSTANDS THE CONCERN ABOUT GROUNDWATER, BUT THEY BELIEVE THERE IS A SUSTAINABLE SOURCE OF GROUNDWATER IN THE BASIN.
MOIRIA WHITE: WE DON'T COME IN FOR THE SHORT-TERM. THAT IS NOT A RIVER VIEW STYLE. WE'RE HERE FOR 100 YEARS. WE WANT TO MAKE SURE WE CAN MAKE THIS VALLEY WORK FOR US AS LONG AS POSSIBLE.
VANESSA MARSHFIELD: THE WELLS THAT RIVER VIEW ARE DRILLING ARE DEEP. RECENTLY THEY HAVE BEEN DRILLING 1500 FEET BELOW THE GROUND, AND DRILLING TO THAT DEPTH CAN COST MORE THAN $100,000 JUST TO BUILT. ALAN ROBBS SAID THAT WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE FOR THE AVERAGE FARMER TO AFFORD. HE SAID HE WOULD LIKE TO SEE THE LARGER WATER USERS BE CHARGED FOR THEIR USAGE.
ALAN ROBBS: MAYBE THEY COULD PUT THAT MONEY INTO A FUND TO HELP PEOPLE WHO HAVE LOST THEIR WATER WELLS TO HELP THEM GET WATER.
VANESSA MARSHFIELD: AND HE SAYS NOW IS THE TIME TO START THINKING ABOUT OWNERSHIP OF WATER IN THIS REGION A LITTLE BIT DIFFERENTLY.
ALAN ROBBS: EVEN THOUGH YOU THINK WHEN YOU BUY A PIECE OF WATER, THE WATER UNDER YOUR PROPERTY IS YOURS, BUT IN A CLOSED BASIN, WE HAVE TO LOOK AT IT AS COMMUNITY PROPERTY, I THINK.
TED SIMONS: ARIZONA CREATED ITS GROUNDWATER MANAGEMENT ACT MORE THAN 30 YEARS AGO, AND AT THE TIME WILLCOX RESIDENTS RESISTED STATE REGULATION OF THEIR WATER SUPPLIES.

Agriculture has been the main economic driver in and around Wilcox, Ariz., which is why Riverview began to look at the area.

Coronado Farms, a branch within Riverview, is about 20 minutes south of Wilcox. Riverview bought the farm back in 2015, and now they’re asking who wouldn’t want to live there?

The primary focus at the Coronado site is heifer development. The site receives 90-day-old female cows that were born in the Riverview system, and helps raise them to become mature cows. They milk about 7,500 cows a day, enough to fill eight trucks headed to New Mexico. South Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska are also sites they deliver to.

When it comes to what attracted them to the southwest, Community Relations for Riverview Moiria White says it’s the climate.

“The same thing that brings winter visitors is the same thing that brought Riverview here,” White says. “We can raise these heifers for half the cost down here. The climate is just awesome.”

Another popular attraction to the Wilcox area is the easy access to water. With a 2,000 square mile basin, the town relies solely on ground water. Since it’s unregulated, all it takes is a well to reach the water. However, the lack of regulation does create some issues.

“Unfortunately, the many hundreds of wells in the Wilcox area are all sucking from the same basin of water and eventually working together to drain that bowl,” says Laurel Lacher of Lacher Hydrological consulting. “Similar to if you were drinking a glass of water through a straw and you sucked it dry.”

Some farmers have transitioned from growing high water using crops like alfalfa to lower water using crops like grapes, Lacher says. It’s fortunate that the land is good for grapes for people like Rod Keeling, owner of Keeling Schaefer Vineyards. It uses less and brings in more than any other crop, Keeling says.

Are water regulations in Wilcox’s future? The residents have mixed feelings, but member of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors says most enjoy how things are now. She says the will of the area is to go on, take their chances, and pray for rain.

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In this segment:

Moiria White: Community Relations, Riverview
Laurel Lacher: Lacher Hydrological Consulting
Peggy Judd: Cochise County Board of Supervisors
Rod Keeling: Owner, Keeling Schaefer Vineyards
Alan Robbs: Owner, Robbs Family Farm

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