Last of Queen Creek's big farms yields to builders

PHOENIX -- Newell Barney may not be well known outside Queen Creek, but the 85-year-old farmer looms large in the tiny town at the southeastern fringe of the Valley.

PHOENIX -- Newell Barney may not be well known outside Queen Creek, but the 85-year-old farmer looms large in the tiny town at the southeastern fringe of the Valley.

The great-grandfather to 70 children, whose name graces a local school and a sports complex, rises at 5 a.m to work the land as he has since 1949.

But that long chapter of Barney's life will soon end, giving way to the same encroaching development that has slowly been swallowing up what remains of the small rustic community known for its farms and horse culture.

The Barney family's land is the last of the major local holdings to surrender to urbanization, said Dave Salge, president of the San Tan Historical Society. There's a sense with some residents that with it, Queen Creek is losing part of its identity.

"We're just blending in with everybody else," Salge said.


A planned 257-acre housing development called Barney Farms, at Meridian and Queen Creek roads, will eventually occupy a significant chunk of the family's 700 acres of farmland.

"Eventually, it's probably all going to be gone," giving way to some form of commercial development, said Barney, who remembers when cotton gins and potato sheds dotted the land, not retail centers and housing developments. "The whole area is just going to be out of agriculture, basically."

The change is inevitable, said Jason Barney, Newell's second cousin and a partner with Landmark Property Holdings.

"It's going to happen one way or another," he said. "That's something that really nobody can control because it really becomes a function of market economics. But one thing that people can participate in is the quality and style of that growth.

"Our family name will be on this development long after we're done building it. Even though it's not economically feasible to keep farming it for the next 200 years, we can make sure that we leave something behind that's sustainable -- something our family will be proud of for generations."

That legacy is still in the planning stages.

Jason Barney said he's been meeting with builders to gain a sense of what kind of homes are currently in demand, adding that he intends to hold all of the work to a high standard of quality on everything from the landscaping to the building materials.

The next step is to apply for zoning and preliminary plat approval, he said. That approval process can take one to two years.


Ken Barney, 53, Newell's son, said economic forces have made it difficult for families to keep their farms going.

"I can't complain about the living that I've had the last 50 years, but the costs have in-creased so much in the last four or five years -- fuel costs, fertilizer costs -- those have all tripled (and) quadrupled," he said.

He said he's likely the last generation of his family to farm.

"I have a son that's 31 years old and he originally probably would have wanted to farm, but I just said it's not in the cards," he said. "Get your education; find something else that you want to do."

Julie Murphree of the Arizona Farm Bureau said other challenges facing farming families are the sometimes overwhelming regulations from federal agencies, such as the Environ-mental Protection Agency, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

She said the paperwork alone can be burdensome.

Newell said the regulations have made the work more difficult.

"It kind of takes the fun out of farming when you have so many regulations and so many things that you have to report on and so many involvements," he said.


Until the real-estate market took a tumble, pressure from developers was another major force that led many farmers to sell their land, Murphree said.

Land before the market's peak that may have gone for $2,500 an acre had suddenly ballooned, Murphree said.

"Some places, it was going for $50,000 and $75,000 dollars an acre," she said.

"When their 401(k) or their retirement was basically their land and you had someone coming up and offering you -- at the peak of the market -- $75,000 an acre, just do the math on that one. That's a lot of dollars."

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