Despite his humble farm beginnings, T. Dennis Barney has emerged as a powerful figure in the East Valley. As a major landowner and developer, he is helping to shape the region into a buzzing, seamless metropolis.
The president of Landmark Equity Investors, he sits in a fancy office, wears well-pressed shirts and slacks with dress shoes that fit his towering frame, and moves in elite business and political circles that include the likes of developer Conley Wolfswinkel and homebuilder Ira Fulton.
Meanwhile, his cousin Newell Barney, 21 years his senior, goes to work in boots and buttondowns, snug on his stocky frame. A straw hat protects him from the intense sun as he checks on crops and drives tractors through the dusty desert soil. With every new home that pops up in the south East Valley, closer to the rural areas, farmers wonder when they’ll have to quit or move. The Barneys are among the many old farm families in the East Valley who have had to wrestle with that very decision. But these two family members took . . .
T. DENNIS BARNEY
Forty years ago, T. Dennis Barney and his four sisters got up early every morning and began their chores. They’d chop weeds in the cotton fields, tend the cattle, drive the tractors. The work sometimes lasted through the evening. Days on the 600-acre farm were especially long during harvest.
Like many people in their 20s, Barney was excited for the future. An only son, he was destined to be a farmer like his father, Talmage Barney, and like so many of his forefathers. He even studied agriculture at Arizona State University.
The Barneys have a long history in farming. Dennis’ ancestors, the Robsons and the Pomeroys, were among the first Mormon families who moved from Idaho and Utah to found Mesa in the 1870s. They, along with the Sirrines and Crismons, helped revitalize the ancient irrigation system left behind by the Hohokam Indians nearly 2,000 years before.
The Mesa area became a patchwork of crops and pastures, home to beef cattle and dairies. The farms were passed from father to son.
While Dennis was growing up, he watched as Mesa’s roads, homes and stores crept closer each year to his family’s farm on Val Vista and University drives. Fields were plowed and dozed, replaced by subdivisions and stores.
The Barneys wondered if their home was too far out of reach of the buzzing city. They felt isolated; their only neighbors were the Curtises who lived down the dirt road.
They soon found themselves on the fringe of the population boom, brought on by companies such as Motorola that moved west and offered job opportunities. In 1974, the Arizona Department of Transportation visited Talmage and informed him that the state was going to build U.S. 60 along the southern edge of his property.
The Valley’s fast-growing population would finally reach the farmstead.
Even without the impending sprawl, the Barneys were struggling. Cotton prices had dropped to 27 cents per pound, and hay was about $30 per ton — hardly profitable. Land prices were surging — a preface to the massive farm crisis in the late 1970s and 1980s that squeezed many farmers out of business. The Barneys had much to consider.
A few days after the visit from ADOT, Dennis and his father were working in the fields, irrigating the crops. They took a break that afternoon, sitting together on the tailgate of their pickup truck.
"My dad — he said: ‘You’d better start thinking about a different way to make a living,’ " Dennis recalls. "I could tell it was probably as hard for him to tell me that as it was for me to hear it."
His father’s advice spun him in a new direction. Dennis went into custom homebuilding, starting a business in his garage. In the 1970s, he bought land for his first subdivision at the corner of Price and Warner roads in Tempe, where few homes were in sight. Friends told him he was crazy and argued no one would live out there.
But Dennis was leaps ahead of the tidal wave of homeowners who would flood the area. His first subdivision, Circle G, was erected in 1976 on that corner — an area now packed with residents.
Even in the 1980s, Dennis projected that new Arizonans would stream into Gilbert, which at the time was a small town of fewer than 7,000. His father scoffed when Dennis bought some 500 acres near the corner of Williams Field and Greenfield roads. "The only people who want to live in Gilbert are rattlesnakes and jackrabbits," his father said.
Where Talmage saw empty isolated fields, Dennis envisioned shops, banks and offices.
Today, that land has been shaped into a shopping center that is home to a Bank of America, DSW shoe store, Circuit City electronics, Marshall’s department store and Bed Bath & Beyond. To the west is an empty field — the future home of another shopping center.
Consumers will come. The San Tan Freeway stretch of Loop 202 is under construction directly south of the development — a pathway for economic growth.
Dennis’ enterprise has helped him comfortably care for his wife and 10 children, as well as support some of the endeavors by his religious community, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He does not view the loss of farmland as a tragedy. He does not lament the changing lifestyle that growth has brought.
"To me, it’s trading one good thing for something else," says Dennis, whose family still owns large tracts of land near Germann and Meridian roads.
Dennis’ cousin, Newell, is one of the few remaining farmers in the East Valley who hasn’t budged an inch, even as he has watched the urban population balloon and spread east and south into the San Tan region over the past 55 years.
Newell, consciously or not, effectively delayed the clash of rural versus urban when he was a newlywed in his 20s. He and his wife, Katherine, sought to buy a piece of the Valley in Queen Creek, a rural town miles from Phoenix in the shadow of the San Tan Mountains at the time.
The couple started with 600 acres in 1948, when the area was still largely isolated, and Queen Creek, Newell says, "was just a little country town."
He and his wife had to follow dirt tracks to get to their home, a ranchstyle house nestled near cotton fields by Queen Creek Road. The closest artery to the big city was Power Road — a few miles west of their house.
Back then, the acres of citrus groves, pecan farms, potato fields, vegetable and cotton crops greatly outnumbered the population of Queen Creek. The town of about 1,000 was quaint. Neighbors knew neighbors and their extended families. Many cotton farmers still relied on hundreds of hired men and women to hand-pick a few hundred acres of cotton when the bolls were ready in the fall.
As with many traditional farm families, Newell’s seven children stayed close to home. His sons. Kenneth, 48, and Gale, 57, are maintaining the family farm operation, working with Newell to tend the cotton, corn and alfalfa fields, which now cover 1,320 acres.
Their homes are conveniently located: They, as well as their five sisters’ families, live in houses on Newell’s land along Queen Creek Road. Because of their proximity, Katherine, 76, helps care for some of her 40 grandchildren who still are in school.
Queen Creek’s rural lifestyle is changing, though. Just in the past five years, the population has increased 220 percent to nearly 14,000 people, and the housing wave is rippling through the area, turning desert farms and citrus groves into redroofed subdivisions.
Newell, now 80, had to stop growing potatoes this year. "That was always a good cash crop," he says. "We miss the potatoes."
There used to be 12 local potato sheds. Eleven have ended their local contracts — another sign that the population growth is becoming a challenge for agribusinesses to nurture and transport their crops. The only shed still in business is Queen Creek Potato Company, a landmark operation founded by another local farm clan, the Power family.
Newell doesn’t like the area’s urban transformation, which sometimes cramps his livelihood and country lifestyle.
"We’d have liked to seen it stay rural," he grumbles, but acknowledges that the wave was coming, regardless of his opinion.
Even he is troubled by the lack of roads to handle the high traffic passing daily through the south East Valley.
"It’s really caused some traffic jams," he said. "This population has gotten here faster than the roads."
Newell’s acreage could become an island, surrounded by the precisely aligned homes that segment so much of the region. A stubborn and determined farmer, Newell plans to hang on to his land, despite the lure of big offers he’s gotten — as much as $55,000 an acre, more than $70 million for his property.
He could fatten the family’s bank accounts and become a local business leader who helps carve Queen Creek into a boomtown — if only he would become a wealthy developer or land speculator, like his cousin Dennis.
Occasionally, Newell dwells on this possibility, then shakes his head.
"I have looked at that for a long time, but I’ve never stopped," he said. "The reason we’re still in the farm business is because we’re farmers, not developers.
"I’ll probably be a farmer till the day I die."
This story includes historical information about the East Valley from the San Tan Historical Society, and details of Mesa’s history from the book "Our Town: The Story of Mesa, Arizona," by Mesa Public Schools.