“See, Wade? Look at the weeds in there.” Ben Ivey steers his pickup around the edge of a cotton field. “Are we gonna spray some more? You probably need to.” Ben’s son, Wade, sitting in the back of the truck, just nods. He knows the weeds will be a problem at harvest if they mix with the cotton bolls.
Wade is the fourth generation to farm this land at the edge of El Paso, Texas — and possibly the last. In good years, the Iveys grow Pima cotton fine enough for a Brooks Brothers shirt. But this year, two-thirds of their farmland near the Rio Grande is sitting idle because of the drought. The city is encroaching too. The Ivey farm is the last inside the city limits of El Paso. “Last year, all this was in cotton,” Ben says as the truck lurches over a dirt road by empty fields.
Ben heads back to the family’s battered old ranch office two miles north of the border, steering past a Walmart and warehouses built on their land. Trucks from Mexico whiz by on Loop 375, the massive border highway that encircles El Paso. The Iveys — savvy businessmen as well as farmers — gave up land for the highway, keeping a big parcel for future development. But Ben Ivey is in no hurry to turn his cotton fields under for a shopping center. “Everybody in El Paso can’t figure us out,” he says, chuckling. “We farm valuable commercial corners. We’re probably stupid for not selling because of the money.” He turns the truck toward another plot of cotton and grins. “We like to farm.”
This is what makes America great.
This holiday season, when you wrap up that cotton shirt for Dad or that set of luxury cotton towels for Mom, think of growers like Ben and Wade who are working under drought conditions not seen since the 1950s. They grumble a lot — about Washington’s policies, local interference, water shortages … the usual stuff — but the Irish Iveys have been growing cotton in the high desert since the 1920s, and they are determined to keep the fields in their family another generation. “People these days have grown away from the land,” Ben says as he kneels down in a field, picking the yellow flower off a cotton plant. Beneath the flower is a green ball or “boll,” which will mature and split open to reveal the fluffy white stuff we know as raw cotton.
Wade loves to tell the story of a friend whose mom brought him out to the Ivey fields, just to show him where the cotton in the shirt he was wearing came from. “I like being outside, getting my hands dirty,” Wade says. He could take a desk job. He’s got a degree in agricultural economics from Texas Tech University. But he started chopping cotton and sorting onions on his dad’s farm as a teenager. (“I hated it,” he admits with a shy grin.) He’s hooked, as is his 3-year-old son, Wyatt. “He cries every morning when I leave. I want to get Wyatt involved in farming and horses and cattle.”
Back in their office, Ben shows off a picture of his grandfather, King Benjamin (K.B.) Ivey, standing by the first bales of cotton ginned in California’s Imperial Valley in 1914. Like his brothers, K.B. knew cotton was a drought-sturdy crop that would love the cool nights and hot days of the high desert near El Paso. “The Iveys came here and pioneered cotton,” Ben says. “They built the first gin and they built the bridges.” It wasn’t easy: K.B. lost his land during World War I and nearly went under during the Great Depression, but he was still able to build his farming operation with his seven sons, all farmers.
Today, the Iveys are, to be honest, more than farmers. They’ve left their stamp on El Paso with residential subdivisions, warehouses and commercial developments. They donated land for Texas A&M’s Agricultural Research Station in El Paso, where researchers study the water crisis that so concerns the family now. Elephant Butte Reservoir, which stores the waters of the Rio Grande for El Paso, nearly went dry this year. The Rockies must get a record snowpack in 2013 to recharge the reservoir if there’s any hope for the Iveys’ next crop. “But we won’t know until July, which is too late to plant our cotton,” Ben says. “So it looks pretty bad for next year.”
In the office, Ben shows off plans for “Rancho del Rey,” a vast commercial center on their farmland. “We will lose our cotton industry here some day,” he says. “It will convert to houses or pecan trees, things with higher value.” But the Iveys are survivors. There are other farms, farther away along the Rio Grande, and 50 head of cattle on 10,000 acres out in the Chihuahuan Desert. Surely those are safe for a while.