Emma Paunil of Casa Grande came home from the Arizona State Fair earlier this year with six prizes for her chickens and ducks. But she is not the stereotypical farm kid from years past.
Her father, Donald Paunil, is an engineer who commutes to work every day at Arizona Trane Co. while Emma’s mother, Jackie, stays home with Emma, 12, and her sister, Erin, 15.
The Paunils chose farming as a lifestyle because they enjoy living close to the land. Though their Generations Ranch southwest of Casa Grande currently operates at a loss, they aren’t planning on moving to the suburbs any time soon.
“We are taking advantage of the opportunity to raise our own organic food, trying to become more and more self-sufficient,” said Jackie Paunil of the family operation she runs while her husband is at work. “With the rising costs and lack of quality control, it is reassuring to know what went into our food that we consume.”
Jackie and her husband also wanted their kids to “have the benefit of the rural setting allowing them to have several different animals.” Their menagerie currently includes horses, dogs, tortoises and a corn snake.
The Paunils aren’t alone, either.
The number of small farms in Arizona has risen in recent years, a trend that seems to defy economics.
The Small Family Ventures study found that farms with less than 180 acres accounted for almost 55 percent of all operations, and farms with sales of less than $50,000 amounted for 78 percent of all operations across Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming.
All three states saw significant increases in the number of small farms from 1992-2002, the study indicated. But even as the total of farmers and ranchers in these three states grew to more than 48,000 people, the study found that many of them had to supplement their family’s income off the farm.
Here, too, the Paunils are no exception. Donald’s salary subsidizes Generations Ranch while it is in “start-up mode,” said Jackie.
“He works the ranch in the evenings and on weekends. He does the management of the hay fields and cultivates the fields when he is available or sets up the heavy equipment for me to work the fields. I work the ranch full-time, including field work, book work and management of our animals,” she said.
The family’s team efforts are part of a belief they are carrying out with their children as well as hoping to make money.
“Small farms have definitely increased their reliance on off-farm income in recent years,” Tronstad added. In addition, he noted that for farms and ranches that pump water, prices of the resource along with energy costs have risen in recent years.
Farming in the Santa Cruz Valley, an area with an economy based on agriculture, can be a risky operation, said Dewitt Weddle, a volunteer at the Sunland Visitors Center in Eloy.
His first jobs were on farms and ranches in the area during the 1960s. But after the Santa Cruz river’s flooding in 1983 and 1991 wiped out some farms completely, he decided to work in another line of business.
Small family farms also are at risk from global competition, industrialization and demographic shifts, the Small Family Ventures study indicated.
“The long-term viability of these farms is critical to the prosperity of rural people and places as these farms account for a significant percentage of all farms in the United States,” the study’s authors concluded.
For example, competition from Chile and Mexico, where labor costs are lower, have made it unprofitable to grow table grapes in Arizona, said Mike Kilby, a consultant for Arizona vineyards and orchards.
“It’s a very labor-intensive business,” he explained.
Grapevines in the Florence area have been removed in order to grow hay as water prices increased, and some 15,000 acres in the areas of Dateland, Stanfield and other regions have disappeared due to falling prices, said Kilby, who retired six years ago from the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension Service.
The Dateland vineyards employed teachers from Yuma and other areas who needed a summer income and they toiled alongside farm workers.
But at the same time, people with capital are interested in starting vineyards, a farm segment that is growing in Arizona, Kilby said.
Pecan orchards also are increasing in acreage due to the value of the crop prices, he added.
Back at the ranch
Generations Ranch’s income currently comes solely from hay sales, but the family plans to open a horse boarding and riding facility next year.
“The ranch is still in start-up mode, so we have been operating at a loss,” Jackie said. “However, we have planted two more hay fields this year and plan another three next spring.”
The family makes $1,000-$2,000 for every 10 acres of hay, and they cut about every six weeks through the summer, depending on the weather.
And then there are kids’ projects.
Erin Paunil is a sophomore at Hamilton High School and shows horses in 4-H and with the American Paint Horse Association.
Emma’s Dutch bantam cock won best variety at this year’s fair. Her buff Brahma bantam pullet won best of breed and reserve champion of all the feather-legged class. Her khaki Campbell drake won best of breed, best of class and best waterfowl.
Her hens provide eggs for the family.
“I check their health and practice their poses,” she said, and explained that she spends 30-60 minutes daily with the birds.
Some of her hens have had chicks, which are sold.
But to give her a leg up on next year’s competition at the fair, “We keep the best ones,” she said.