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Frustration and futility: Farming in Flagstaff

For more than 100 years, Arizonans have tried to grow crops to feed themselves, feed their livestock and make their living, with varying degrees of success.

That prospect has proven a particular challenge at 7,000 feet. Flagstaff’s high altitude, unforgiving winds, short growing seasons, browsing wildlife, pests, and disease all make cultivating crops there a challenge.

But farmers throughout the state’s history have persisted.

On Sept. 1, 1917, the Agricultural Extension Office (AEO) opened in Flagstaff to support Coconino County farmers, who had a total of 25,000 acres under cultivation. The Agricultural Extension Office agent’s first annual report listed the county’s leading crop as potatoes, with spring wheat, oats, barley, corn, and pinto beans also grown. Local businesses bought 98 percent of the potatoes, and enough wheat was grown to supply the Flagstaff Milling Company, a local flour mill.

The agent’s first report also noted that the potato crop, affected by disease, did not produce what was hoped. The potatoes that did survive, however, sold well enough to encourage the farmers to continue. One Fort Valley homesteader, Adolph Bader, reportedly had enough surviving potatoes to fill 10 train cars. Because they grow underground, potatoes were able to withstand late frosts and relentless, drying winds, which explains why they were grown in the Flagstaff area.

Recognizing the challenges farmers faced from the climate, the AEO agent established programs to improve the soil, treat seed, control rodents and improve irrigation. He also established a farm bureau made up of local farmers. Museum of Northern Arizona co-founder Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, who maintained a farm across from the site of the museum, was the lone woman in the bureau.

The agent’s 1924 annual report listed 250 farms in the area, with potatoes still listed as the leading agricultural commodity. Severe drought continued to cause crop failures. Truck farming was encouraged, and lettuce and cabbage were suggested as good crops for this method.

By 1929, pinto beans overtook potatoes as the major crop in Coconino County. That year, 18,000 sacks containing 100 pounds of beans each were produced. Frost in late spring and early fall and windstorms again affected crop production. Pete Michelbach, a homesteader in Hart Prairie, planted 20 acres of potatoes and left the remaining acreage for hay.

By 1934, the annual report listed 1,023 farms countywide.

Farmers attempted terrace farming in the late 1930s after wind and water erosion caused widespread damage. The bean crop failed in 1939 due to drought, poor soil, insects and disease. During the 1940s, crop production in the Flagstaff area continued, but farmers did not have much luck selling their crops because of the mountain town’s isolation. The east-west railroad could carry crops to other places, but because crops were grown cheaper in California, there were few buyers for Flagstaff crops. The rail route between Flagstaff and southern Arizona still ran through Ash Fork and Prescott, and construction of Interstate 17 was still decades away.

By the end of the 1950s, Flagstaff agriculture had become less of a business and more of a hobby. Crop lands were sold and subdivided to accommodate housing demands for an increasing population.

Today, Flagstaff is known more for its ranching and logging heritage, but the efforts of the early farmers who fed area residents and maintained the local economy should not be forgotten.

— S.D. Olberding. Photo courtesy of author.

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