Family Farms on the Gila Bend-Wickenburg Bicycle Thoroughfare

The PAC Tour Cactus Classic 2012

After dark, the abandoned buildings along Gila Bend’s main street—Arizona Highway 85—disappear into the darkness, but the roar and glare of all-night heavy truck traffic continues. The one oasis of civility is a cluster of bold colors produced by the retro neon lights that invite travelers to stop at the Space Age Motel and Restaurant. Established in 1962 but refurbished in more recent years, this hostelry is the place for PAC Tour cyclists to spend the night before they begin their journey on one of the finest bicycle thoroughfares in the United States.

The harsh traffic outside is caused by the fact that Highway 85 is an arterial highway that carries heavy truck traffic to and from Mexico. It also serves as a link between I-8 traffic from San Diego and the regional warehousing on I-10 southwest of Phoenix.

Half a mile north of the Space Age Motel, however, cyclists turn left on Old U. S. 80 and instantly enter into a quiet zone that continues for 88 miles through Arizona’s Outback.

This portion of Arizona is part of the Sonoran Desert that has an area of 120,000 square miles in southwestern United States and northwest Mexico. It is a moderately high plateau (the elevation at Gila Bend is c. 700 feet), with sharply profiled mountainous spurs in all directions.

Annual rainfall ranges from three to sixteen inches per year and comes in two seasons, thus developing a more diverse flora and fauna than are found in many of the world’s deserts. The Gila River system has made it possible, however, to develop agriculturally based economies for more than a thousand year.

When Spaniards came to this country in the 1500s, they found an efficient, sustainable irrigation system, which in most years allowed the Pima Indians to share food generously with the foreign travelers who much of the time were in desperate need of food and water.

In these later years, however, highly mechanized irrigation systems have developed. The centuries-old, sustainable uses of water have been destroyed and complex modes of industrialized farming have taken their place.

Two sites along the highway illustrate the history of irrigation in this region. Twenty-four miles north of Gila Bend, the highway comes to a lush riparian scene, dominated visually by the Gillespie Dam, which was built in 1921 by a local farmer to replace an earlier structure. The concrete apron built in front of the spillover dam proved to be unsatisfactory for vehicular traffic. An iron bridge was constructed in 1926 and the road was incorporated into the federal highway system. The federal highway was decommissioned in 1956 and is now maintained by Maricopa County. The central portion of the dam was washed out in a flood on January 9, 1993.

Immediately north of the bridge, the highway climbs over a short, sharp spur of high ground. At the top, the olive-gray desert landscape is replaced by the intense green of irrigated hay fields. Major users of these feed stocks are the cattle feeding stations along this same section of the old road. Some of the water also supplies cotton farming along this venerable highway.

Nine miles north of I-10, the Hayden-Rhodes Aqueduct offers a sharp contrast to the riparian scene at the Gillespie Dam. As part of the Central Arizona Project, it carries a high volume of water from the Colorado River across the northern section of metropolitan Phoenix. There the canal receives a name change and continues its run as an artificial river to its termination at Tucson. Where the bicycle thoroughfare crosses this new canal (the system was built during a twenty-year period beginning in 1973), nothing of beauty can be seen—only the efficient concrete channel surrounded by chainlink and barbwire.

Two farming enterprises along this desert highway are particularly interesting because they illustrate non-traditional forms of family farming. As cyclists make their start on Old U. S. 80, a modest and weathered sign points to the shrimp farm five miles down the road. There the Wood Brothers produce their “desert sweet shrimp,” which (according to their website) are “pond-grown in mineral-rich well water, drawn directly from Arizona’s deep ancient seabeds. Carefully monitored and kept meticulously free of pathogens and contaminants, the qualities of this deep well water, combined with the benign effects of the hot desert sun, result in healthier, faster growing, and better tasting shrimp…The mineral-rich effluence from the shrimp ponds is used to irrigate acres of prime olive trees and even Durum wheat (the basis for pasta).”

Their shrimp business is in trouble, however, because Asian-grown shrimp are cheaper; the farm is experimenting with the production of algae for biofuel.

In sharp contrast, the Hickman Family Egg Farm, now operated by the third generation of the Hickman family, has recently invested $20 million in its Arlington operations on the Salome Highway. This farm contains approximately 3 million hens and produces an average of 2.5 million eggs per day.

That will make enough three-egg omelets to keep PAC Tour cyclists on the road for many a day!

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