Earth Notes: A High-Elevation Farming Tradition

Sep 25, 2013

There's not a lot left of Flagstaff's old farming tradition. It's a surprise to many living here today. But, this community - at an elevation of 7,000 feet - with it's short growing season, unpredictable moisture and harsh winds, was a farming hub for some 80 years.

Flagstaff farming
Credit NAU Cline Library, Special Collections and Archives

In the 1880's, homesteaders started growing potatoes in the open "prairies" as high as 8,000 feet. They shipped out train car loads of spuds on the new transcontinental railroad. Farmers also raised wheat, oats and barley. Some of it turned into livestock feed at a local mill.

By the 1930's, pinto beans were the cash crop. The largest fields were in Doney Park and the Timberline area east of Flagstaff. All of it was dry farming, dependent on snow melt and summer rains. Farmers would plant beans a foot deep to draw on soil moisture. In 1936, 3,000,000 pound of beans were harvested.

At the peak, more than 12,000 acres were under cultivation around Flagstaff. But the 1950's changed all that as Northern Arizona University graduate student Meredith Hartwell learned when she wrote a detailed historical study of Flagstaff farming. Drought came with new severity. Federal policies encouraged farmers to sell out. So did the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, which caused farms to make way for worker housing and staging sites for the dam.

The pinto bean farms are gone for good. But new, smaller efforts to promote local agriculture are thriving as farmers and community gardeners develop the taste of home.