This is the best of both worlds. Call it the perfect combination for a cotton farm – an ideal location and a close knit family operation. Nestled in the southeast part of Arizona in a pristine area known as the Gila River Valley near the town of Thatcher is where you’ll find V.I.P. Farms.
||V.I.P. Farms At A Glance
• 3,100 total acres.
• 2,600 acres of cotton.
• 400 acres of wheat.
• 100 acres of alfalfa hay.
• Located near Thatcher, Ariz.
• 1,700 pound yields in 2009.
• Principal varieties: Deltapine.
It’s a catchy name for a farm, but like everything else in this part of the world, there’s a story behind it. The initials stand for Verle I. Palmer, patriarch of the Palmer family and the person who helped start the business many years ago. In a region some folks call a “little piece of heaven,” you’ll find Verle, son Dennis, grandson Matt and their extended families managing 3,100 acres in what can best be described as a picturesque setting for a farm.
Situated nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, this is a farm that can be deceiving at first glance. It might have a beautiful backdrop with snow-capped mountains and ideal temperatures for producing cotton. However, the challenges are quite real.
Whether it is torrential rains, water shortages, extreme heat, high input costs, diverse soil profiles or even labor shortages, there are plenty of problems awaiting farmers in this area.
Conversely, as any member of the Palmer family can attest, it’s also very rewarding when everything works out as planned, and a three- to four-bale cotton crop is harvested. That is what happened in 2009.
Rich Family History
If the Palmers have any advantage, it is their willingness to be an efficient family operation that simultaneously espouses smart business practices and timely adoption of technology.
They trace their history back to 1883, and each generation since then has put an indelible stamp on the farm, which now consists of 2,600 cotton acres, 400 wheat acres and 100 acres of alfalfa hay.
The six partners in the operation are: Verle and wife Trelva, Dennis and wife Margaret and Matt and wife Kim.
Verle is 76. He and his wife began the business with only 75 acres. His son Dennis, 56, and wife Margaret joined the operation in 1976. And, not surprisingly, Dennis’s son Matt, 31, and wife Kim joined in 2001.
“So far, we’ve been able to work together as a family on this farm,” says Dennis. “This situation really works for us. Everybody has a different job. What makes it even better is that our families live close to each other here in the valley.”
Dennis admits that he, Verle and Matt don’t always agree on important farm management decisions. But they find a way to talk it over and then “we usually come to a consensus on how we should handle a certain project.”
The entire Gila River Valley has about 35,000 acres of farmland, and at one time there were dairies and feed lots everywhere. Cotton, however, is the one crop that has consistently performed well through the years.
Switching To Upland
The Palmers once grew only Pima cotton, but that changed 12 years ago when they made the switch to transgenic upland varieties.
“We had problems with bugs on the Pima,” says Dennis. “Plus, you had to usually pick the Pima twice. We’re happy with growing transgenic upland cotton, and the biggest expenses we encounter now are input costs and water availability.”
Verle, the “unofficial historian” of the family, agrees with that assessment and takes it one step further.
“The power costs are also going up, and that’s a concern,” he says. “Those costs have pretty much skyrocketed in the last few years.”
Despite the high electrical costs, the Palmers meticulously manage their pumps so that tailwater runoff can be captured and recycled on many fields.
“That proves to be an advantage anytime we can catch that water and use it again,” says Verle.
The Palmers receive half of their water from pumps and the other half from the river. A lot of factors influence their water supply, and it is always a concern if a shortfall occurs.
There is no dam upstream on the Gila River. A dam is located below the V.I.P. farm, and that supply is determined by how much water is stored for farmers in Coolidge, a town located many miles west of Thatcher.
Recovering From Drought
Because water availability is so important to the V.I.P. farm, it’s understandable that everyone was concerned by drought conditions back in December. But, then, along came several El Niño weather patterns dropping heavy rain and significant snow amounts at the higher elevations.
“We were looking at not planting 25 to 30 percent of our land because we didn’t have the water,” says Dennis. “But the El Niño systems took care of that problem. Our land is a bit swampy because it’s so wet, but I’m not complaining.”
The pumps will be recharged from snow melt in the mountains, and the V.I.P farm will start the season with excellent soil moisture conditions.
As the Palmers continue to implement efficient farming practices in their operation – which is comprised of 150 cotton fields spread across 25 miles in the Gila Valley – they have recently upgraded to 12-row equipment, including new harvesting equipment, which consists of two six-row John Deere cotton pickers, four module builders and two boll buggies.
It is a major investment, but Dennis says it will pay dividends by allowing harvest to move along quicker in the fall.
A Unique Location
What else makes this region so different from other cotton production areas besides the elevation, river valley and surrounding mountains, which are close to 11,000 feet above sea level?
Matt, who helps his father Dennis run the day-to-day operations of the farm, says their crop avoids heat stress because of cool night-time temperatures.
“This is one of the things that makes our area so unique,” says Matt. “Our elevation definitely makes us different from the Phoenix area. We receive plenty of heat in the summer, but our nights have much cooler temperatures. The crop can recover, and it helps us produce better cotton.”
As with other aspects of the Palmer operation, decisions about what varieties to grow is a group decision. The farm doesn’t need to hire a consultant because Verle has the necessary years of experience to know what kind of recommendations to make.
Dennis says most of the Gila River Valley is planted to Deltapine varieties, and for many years 80 percent of the valley’s cotton was planted to single gene DP 455 BR. Since that variety has been phased out, the Palmers will experiment this year with six to eight Deltapine varieties, and they hope to find one that performs similar to DP 455 BR.
“That was a wonderful variety,” he says. “It averaged about 42 percent turnout at the gin,” he says. “I hope we find another one like it.”
Excellent Fiber Quality
Producing quality on the V.I.P. farm has also been consistent through the years. Staple averages between 36 and 37, and the farm has earned five- to six-cent premiums on its loan cotton.
A disciplined schedule is implemented each year when planting begins on April 10 and continues for the next four weeks. Ideally, planting is finished by May 10. Harvesting usually starts around the middle of October and continues for another four weeks. Crop development is also enhanced by timely Pix applications. The first application is made in mid-July and another is made in mid-August.
“By giving the crop two shots like this, it evens things out and gives us a uniform appearance,” says Dennis. “We then defoliate the cotton twice and get all of the bolls open. Then, we go in and pick it in a hurry. This really seems to help with our quality.”
Families Build Trust
Is there a key to having three families successfully manage such an operation?
That question may be hard to answer in one simple sentence, according to Verle, Dennis and Matt.
“The biggest thing we have going for us is trust,” says Dennis. “I know that Matt is a better farmer than me, and I thought I was pretty good.
“There are things that my father (Verle) can’t do that I can do, and then there are things that he and Matt can do that I can’t do.”
With children and grandchildren growing up on the farm, and all three homes so close to each other, the Palmers have re-defined how families can run an operation.
“Our world is pretty much centered around the farm and families,” says Verle. “Being here in the mountains makes it very special. The other day we threw a birthday party for one of the granddaughters, and you would’ve thought we were at Disney World. It was that much fun.”
Maybe it’s because he’s the eldest of the family, or perhaps it’s his love of nostalgia, but Verle enjoys looking around and seeing more than cotton fields.
He still marvels that he can stand in a field and stare at a snow-capped mountain 11,000 feet in elevation.
“Where else can you go play golf and look up and see snow on the mountain?” he asks with a laugh. “If we wanted to, we could go up and play in the snow and then drive back down to our farm and take our coats off, and it’s like summer again. That’s how beautiful this place is.”
Contact Tommy Horton at firstname.lastname@example.org or (901) 767-4020.
Family Takes Priority In Palmer Operation
Arizona Extension cotton specialist Randy Norton has known the Palmer family since the 1980s and can vouch for how it achieves such success in cotton production.
“I think it all comes down to consistency for them,” he says. “They pay close attention to details, and they are constantly out in the field observing and studying the crop’s progress. They are not windshield farmers. By that, I mean they get out of their trucks and walk the turnrows.
“The three families also have a strong bond with each other and an even stronger faith. They do what’s best for the families, and everyone has something invested in that farming business. It’s impressive to watch them in action.”
Norton also believes that there is a mutual respect among Verle, Dennis and Matt as they work together to make the best possible decisions during the long crop season. And, he says, they know how to discuss a decision and reach consensus before moving forward.
Norton spent an entire day with Dennis last fall during harvest and was particularly impressed at how much advance planning went into the way the pickers moved in and out of the fields.
“Dennis has it timed out to the minute on how long it should take to harvest the crop,” he says. “That’s how organized the operation is. They don’t waste any time.