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25 years of growing green

Agriculture.com Staff 04/22/2008 @ 11:45am

Howard Wuertz had been growing cotton and other crops on the sandy fields of Casa Grande Valley for over a quarter of a century when the 1980 Arizona Water Management Act mandated 85% water-use efficiency.

His parents had pulled up stakes from South Dakota in 1929, moving their farm and family southeast of Phoenix to Coolidge. The youngest of four sons, Wuertz earned an ag engineering degree at the University of Arizona and began leasing land.

"Farming is all that I ever wanted to do," he says. "As a farmer on the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board, I knew I couldn't waste water resources."

So he took up the challenge. He already had been experimenting with subsurface drip irrigation, and when he made the switch from surface furrow, he achieved 95% efficiency. The conversion cut costs, boosted yields, and expanded the acreage and profits of his operation, Sundance Farms.

"We use only enough water to wet the root zone, so the fertilizer isn't washed out of the soil profile," Howard says. "It reduces waste by 30% and protects the environment."

Drip lines are buried about eight to 10 inches. The need for tillage in his crop rotation led him to invent five patented machines for subsurface drip and minimum-till systems, and launch a consulting company, Arizona Drip Systems, Inc.

Howard and his wife, Jewell, have two sons, Greg and David, and two daughters, Carol and Sarah. All but Sarah, who lives in Phoenix, work in the business. Today they're facing a new era of looming water shortages and explosive urban development.

Sundance Farms grows cotton, durum wheat, alfalfa, ensilage corn for area dairies, sorghum, and watermelons. "Two thirds of the 3,200 acres are subsurface drip," Carol says.

Dave is general manager of farm operations and CEO of Arizona Drip Systems. Carol is vice president/treasurer of Arizona Drip and Sundance Farms. Greg is involved in marketing and sales, and active in Arizona Cotton Growers and Calcot, a western cotton cooperative. Both he and Dave have separate farm operations.

Howard Wuertz had been growing cotton and other crops on the sandy fields of Casa Grande Valley for over a quarter of a century when the 1980 Arizona Water Management Act mandated 85% water-use efficiency.

No-till farming is the cornerstone of Sundance Farms' subsurface drip system. As row crops are rotated, a stubble peel-off rig mounted on the front of the planter peels a small portion of stubble from the bed, exposing the soil. Weed control is achieved with a batten of wheat straw three inches thick between rows.

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