KINGMAN, Ariz. — The challenge of turning desert to farmland has drawn a new player to northwest Arizona where developer Jim Rhodes has already generated plenty of controversy and concerns over water depletion.
A pension fund investment pool headed by Bob Saul of Massachusetts has acquired more than 8,000 acres to grow crops on the south end of the area known as Red Lake, about 20 miles north of Kingman.
“We saw this as probably the most exciting agricultural project in the country. You just don’t see the opportunity to convert essentially desert basin into green agriculture from scratch,” Saul said. “Where you see water, you often don’t see the soil quality that you have out there in the Red Lake basin. So those things come together and, to a dispassionate investor, they look very attractive.”
Saul said Red Lake Ventures, a limited liability company established in April, purchased some of its acreage from Rhodes and that Rhodes donated the rest to become a minority partner in the enterprise. He said Red Lake Ventures entered a contract that essentially employed the Rhodes-held Kingman Farms to develop the agricultural endeavor.
But Saul said Kingman Farms has failed to meet many operational performance standards and that Red Lake Ventures is terminating its contract with Kingman Farms.
“We’re in the process of extricating ourselves from the relationships which we’ve made over the past six months or so,” Saul said. “What we’re doing is separating ourselves from Jim Rhodes’ farming.”
An equipment-related dispute between the parties has been reviewed by the Mohave County sheriff’s office. Sheriff Jim McCabe said it appears those issues need to be resolved outside law enforcement, either by the parties or through civil litigation.
Saul declined to outline the dispute and neither Rhodes’ attorney nor Kingman Farms’ marketing director returned telephone calls seeking comment.
Larry Hancock, who farms about 17,000 acres throughout Arizona, is serving as a consultant to Red Lake Ventures. He said the operation is viable and that pistachios, almonds, walnuts, wheat, cotton and alfalfa are among the early crop considerations.
“Anywhere you have good soil and good water in Arizona, you can pretty much grow anything,” Hancock said.
Rhodes, who also has a long history of controversy surrounding development projects and political involvements in Las Vegas, retains some 40,000 acres on the north end of Red Lake. His massive water well development and farming efforts have generated aquifer depletion concerns by residents, Kingman, Mohave County, the Hualapai Tribe and others.
Rhodes initially promised to use water conservation irrigation techniques early this year, but quickly switched to massive circle pivot systems that shoot water from suspended sprinklers. Saul said Red Lake Ventures will eventually remove most of the pivot systems and convert to lower-water-use methods and use drip irrigation systems on the property.
“It’s in our interest to optimize every drop of water we have coming out of that ground,” Saul said.
He said Red Lake Ventures strongly objects to Rhodes’ proposal to the BLM to swap some 20,000 acres to consolidate holdings separated by a checkerboard pattern of private and public ownership.
“We’re very, very much against that,” Sual said. “It doesn’t serve our interests. It lowers the sustainability of the Red Lake aquifers, and if we’re looking to do sustainable agriculture for a long period of time, someone controlling that much land and picking up that much water is not in our interest. That’s one of the many places where we diverge with Jim.”