Part III - Farmers harvest a new cash crop: development - East Valley Tribune: Thespeculators

Part III - Farmers harvest a new cash crop: development

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Posted: Tuesday, October 11, 2005 6:02 am | Updated: 8:19 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

As the East Valley expands into Queen Creek and beyond, homes and businesses are replacing the rustling fields of alfalfa, cotton and corn that for a century were the residents’ primary source of income.

Growth brings the inevitable confrontation between rural and urban life — city folk complaining about dust, noise, and stench. Not to mention those slow-moving tractors that bring traffic to a standstill on the busiest highways and roads, many of them named after those same farm families — Dobson, Crismon, Lesueur, Ellsworth, Pomeroy, Power, Rittenhouse and Sossaman.

So the farmers are selling out or starting new enterprises. Many of the long-standing farm families in the East Valley have joined the deve lopers, grow ing homes instead of crops.

It’s far more profitable. Land is worth at least 100 times more for commercial development than for farmland; developers are paying as much as $150,000 an acre.

That’s a plum offer, especially compared with the meager returns from a cotton or wheat crop.

Now, cotton is bringing in about 41 cents a pound. The cost of production, though, is about 70 cents per pound and increasing with surging fuel costs.

Wheat is struggling at $2.96 per bushel, and has been in a slump since the Atkins low-carb diet craze soured pasta and bread sales.

Corn is selling for $1.89 per bushel — down from $3.27 in August 2004. The crop is more cheaply and efficiently produced in the Midwest. So most Arizona farmers make more money by selling their corn to local dairymen and cattlemen to feed their herds, instead of hauling off the crop by train or truck to a large processor.

Steve Sossaman, a fourth-generation Queen Creek farmer, has weighed the benefits and costs of farming, taking into account the East Valley growth spurt and how it would affect the entire local farm industry — from operators like him to millers and the seed and pesticide retailers who provide him with supplies.

Eventually, he says, they’ll be squeezed out by the growth.

"Let’s be realistic and practical," Sossaman says. "At some point, farming is not the smart option."

Sossaman devised a plan 20 years ago for how he would cope with the sprawl. Next year, he will make his debut in development and begin a gradual exit from farming, master planning more than 400 acres for 800 homes. He had help from an acquaintance and former Wall Street businessman, Wes Clelland, now his partner.

Besides the shaky farm economy, Sossaman, 47, considered other factors before plowing ahead with his plans for building homes.

"I don’t have any sons. I’m getting older," he says, sitting on the tailgate of his truck, shaded by trees and the rim of the shed that protects his farm equipment. "My goal is to get into a business that has cash flow — because farming doesn’t."

Of the 2,110 farms in Maricopa County in 2002, 1,400 reported net losses averaging $24,000 per farm.

Sossaman is following the lead of many long-standing farm families who’ve made the leap from tending crops and livestock to drawing up plans for houses and businesses. Others include the Cooleys, Dobsons and Morrisons.

"There are very few farmers that control their land," says Paul Wilson, agricultural economist at the University of Arizona. "But that doesn’t mean that the farmers themselves haven’t become developers."

Former Mesa Mayor Eldon W. Cooley, 87, has been in the land business for more than 60 years.

Cooley started out as a farmer, as did his dad, but withdrew from the occupation in his 50s after ending a four-year stint as mayor in 1976. He then began to focus more on real estate, leasing land to farmers, including his son, Jeff, while buying up tracts that looked as though they would jump in value.

Cooley calls himself a "land man." Buying and selling property is a game.

"It’s kind of been fun just trading and getting more land and rent and more income," says Cooley, whose holdings include a strip of land along Recker Road in the Higley area and a 2,500-acre ranch in Yuma.

But the game is getting harder to play. Too much competition. Too little land.

"Good land is hard to find nowadays," Cooley laments.

Especially in Maricopa County, which is nearing capacity.

The number of farms in Maricopa County has decreased 14 percent since 1997 — their ground mostly eaten by new construction.

The Dobson family has been farming in the East Valley since the 1880s, when brothers Wesley and Mark Dobson moved there from Canada. Over the years, the Dobsons’ property grew from a small homestead to 4,000 acres. Four generations have raised livestock — including beef cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens and rabbits. They’ve also grown alfalfa, barley, corn and cotton.

Dwayne Dobson, 66, thinks the explosive growth really began sometime in the 1950s, accelerating as major employers such as Motorola and Intel came to the area. With the cities inching closer, the family sold 640 acres along Elliot Road in Chandler for nearly $2.2 million in 1975.

The family has been buying and selling property for years. More than 2,000 acres of its original farmstead in Mesa is home to the extensive Dobson Ranch subdivision, a 5,000-home community built in 1973 in southwest Mesa by Continental Homes. Dwayne Dobson still owns patches of ground throughout the East Valley.

He says the goal when selling land is to trade it for a new piece on the fringes of the urban sprawl, so the value of the land will appreciate while the family farms the ground until the city nears their fences and it’s time to sell again. "We want to be in an area that has a good water supply, and has potential growth for a subdivision," he says.

Dwayne Dobson and his brother, Vincent, own about three square miles of land in Pinal County primed for exactly that. It sits on the western side of Felix Road, and is master planned for development.

It isn’t easy selling land that has been farmed by a family for a century. Ancestors have toiled over the ground, driving horses to plow the soil and cut the hay. And family members have spent hours together, generations together, trying to coax a living off the land.

The Morrisons in Gilbert have lived in the East Valley since the 1930s. Members of the third generation have master planned about 2,000 acres of farmland for 6,000 homes in an area that stretches along Elliot Road between the Salt River Project’s Eastern Canal and Power Road. The community will be called Higley Groves at Morrison Ranch.

The family has lived in the Gilbert area since the 1920s. Family members remember working side by side to finish chores. "Grandma’s house," a home their grandfather, Howard Morrison, built in the 1950s, is now headquarters of their planning operations. The sitting room walls are covered with mementos of their farm era, including old photos of the family.

"All of us have memories that we’ll cherish and wish that our kids could relive," says Howard Morrison, whose brothers and cousins decided in 1993 to develop the Gilbert acreage. "There’s much we’ll miss."

Real estate doesn’t have to be the only answer for farmers on the edge of the city.

At least, that’s what the Schnepfs thought.

Mark and Carrie Schnepf ’s farm, on Rittenhouse and Cloud roads south of Queen Creek, has become a tourist attraction. They have a train and carousel for children to ride, citrus and fruit groves, plus a barn full of goats, chickens, pigs and cows. They host festivals and invite locals to rent a peach tree so they can pick their own fruit.

The 250-acre farm also has become a museum of sorts. Relics from century-old farms line the drive that cuts through the Schnepfs’ property: The original building that was home to local farmer Mack Hastings’ office, a building from the Neely Farm in Gilbert, the farmhouse that Mark’s mom and dad lived in, the Schnepfs’ original animal barn, and the old cotton gin water tower from Queen Creek.

Carrie Schnepf, 44, is trying to snag a memento from Duane Ellsworth’s farm, another historic farm in the Queen Creek area, as well as a local potato barn — which used to be a common sight in Queen Creek.

The Schnepfs are constantly adding to the farm grounds, leading tours and hosting guests. The family is dedicated to caring for the site. They’ve spent a lot of money and poured a lot of sweat into it.

But they have doubts. Land around them is getting snatched up. Their neighbors, descendants of Mack Hastings, recently sold their farm for new-home construction.

"We’re in a dilemma," Carrie Schnepf says. "You look at the land values and you look at the growth and we wonder: Are we doing the right thing?"

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