International business thrives in Marana

Whenever you drive by cotton, wheat or corn fields in Marana or unincorporated Pima County, you can be sure that most of what you see is likely headed to China.

Local farmers say Asian milling industry migration in the 1990s is the main factor that sends locally-produced products overseas.

San Diego-based cotton buyer Chris Warren, who brokers many of the deals that send Arizona goods all over the world, said cotton, grain and other products farmed in the state go mostly to China and Southeast Asia.

Warren estimates about 60 percent of Marana-area cotton goes to China, 20 percent goes to Indonesia and 20 percent goes to Turkey. Due to trade agreements, much of what is shipped abroad returns to U.S. shores as finished products.

Marana Town Council member Herb Kai, whose family has been in the local ranching and farming business for nearly 80 years, said he sells 80 percent of his cotton and pecans to China, while much of his grain goes to Italy.

Kai said there’s uncertainty involved in selling globally.

“We like to make sure we have the money in hand when we send it over there,” he said. “They could reject it once it gets there. It’s so darned risky. It takes time to develop those relationships.”

Kai, who declined to reveal how much acreage he farms, said he hopes to establish personal relationships with foreign vendors, but for now he “plays it safe and lets the broker take a cut.”

Farmer Arnold Burruel, who operates the 5,000-acre Burruel & Burruel farming enterprise in Marana and Eloy, said most of his cotton goes to China to be milled, while his grain goes to Italy, where it is used for pasta. The barley and corn he grows stays in the state, with the barley going to feed lots in Red Rock or Yuma and the corn going to ethanol plants around the state.

Burruel, who started farming in 1986, owns the business with his wife, Judith, and son, Armando.

Burruel said the globalized market has made it tough to get by.

“Putting a bale on a boat and chugging it all the way across the Pacific — buyers aren’t gonna pay for that,” he said. “They take the transportation costs out of our price.”

Burruel said the business is doing “OK,” but he fears how a drop in commodity prices could affect the farming economy.

Warren said demand for Marana cotton is high, thanks to the area’s higher altitude and relatively mild climate compared to other cotton-producing parts of the state.

“It’s usually a little higher quality than in other areas of the state, out to the Colorado River, from Yuma up to Blythe (Calif.),” he said, adding that Turkey and Indonesia tend to prefer the better-quality cotton, while China’s demand is so high that it accepts lower-quality cotton as well.

“China will take a wider range of qualities because its milling capacity is the biggest in the world,” Warren said. “China can basically spin anything, but some of the other countries are a little more particular.”

Warren said Marana cotton is known as some of the world’s finest.

“The cleanliness of the fields in Marana always stands out to me,” he said. “The farms are some of the cleanest operations in the country. There are less contaminants in the cotton. In Yuma and along the Colorado River, where they plant rice in the winter, they end up with plastic in the field.”

The region’s reputation for high-quality cotton, Burruel said, extends to the seed-selling business, which adds another important global revenue stream.

Burruel said he sells seed to Africa, India, China, Australia and South America, among other places. Buyers appreciate the way the cotton grows without stiffness or rigidity like it does in other areas, he said.

“We grow really high-quality seed,” he said. “A lot of our seed we save to sell to other farmers around the world. It’s added value to what we already grow.”

Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or