Western tire farming

T ire farming began in the western U.S. in 1939. After the United States cut off exports of oil and steel to pre-war Japan, Japan retaliated by cutting America off from latex from rubber plantations in Malaysia and other controlled territories. Unable to fight the war in Europe without tires for trucks, jeeps and tank treads, Congress enacted the Western Tire Farming Act of 1940. The "Tire Act," as it's known, offered subsidies to tire farmers (the likes of which have never been seen outside tobacco farming) in return for a few square yards of roofline. In a matter of only months, the metal roofs of virtually every pre-fabricated single family residence west of the Mississippi had been committed to tire farming. Along with Victory gardens and metal recycling, Western Tire Farming is credited with helping the United States win the war. Today, the war's over, the shortage of natural latex long gone, but tire farming goes on.

Three-hundred-plus days per year of sunshine and dry climate make the Four Corners a prime spot for tire farming. A highly reflective sheet of Pro-Panel, occasional light rain (or just a good sprinkle from the garden hose) and endless sunshine produces some of the best bias and radial-ply tires in the country. Further south, in New Mexico, 8- and 12-ply truck tires are the cash crop. According to Dale Sidewall, of Kline, Colo., "Most tire farmers start out small 175x13's, maybe some 185x14's.You've got to work your way up to the 17- and 18-inch, 60-series tires you find on today's SUV's. Here and there you'll find specialty farms, creating hybrids like run-flats and whitewalls. Areas with shorter growing seasons tend to stick to recapping.

Not that tire farming is without its downsides, specifically, West Nile virus. Mosquito larvae love the warm, stagnant water that gets trapped inside immature M+S (mud and snow) tires. Heather Treadwell, of a local health service, indicts the industry as a whole: "There is no single better breeding ground ever created for mosquitoes than tire farms. We've lost more than a half dozen tire farmers and innocent members of their families to West Nile virus in the past five years. And there's no valid reason for tire farming to continue, with excellent synthetic rubbers and more natural latex available from the Philippines than at any time in history. It's those blasted government subsidies that keep tire farming alive. If it were up to me, I'd outlaw it. It's not only an eyesore, it's a clear and present threat to public health."

Western tire farmers acknowledge there's some risk, however, they believe it can be managed.

"If you keep all your tires balanced and properly rotate 'em, there's practically no risk at all," fumed one local tire farmer, who chose to remain anonymous. "That whole fiasco with Firestone and them blow-outs on Explorers wuz caused by insufficient inner-flation. It had nothing to do with mosquitoes biting into the sidewalls."

Considering the income that even a modest, single-wide tire farm can generate, Western tire farming is unlikely to go away anytime soon. "When was the last time you priced studded snows?" asks Ag Agent Bif Goodrich. "The average family in rural La Plata County has four or five, sometimes six vehicles. Despite two or three of 'em being up on blocks, or upside down, consider the annual expense for tires."

Goodrich adds, "Why would you want to shell out a thousand bucks when you can grow your own? You have the added bonus of knowing exactly what tread-hardening agents are added, carbon compounds (like train soot) for improved traction, and with experience, you can cultivate exactly the kind of tread pattern you prefer for, say, your Trans-Am. Personally, I'm working on a new Waffle-Iron' tread for my ATV. Got any old waffle irons you're not using?"

Goodrich concludes, "Like it or not, the only bigger cash crop in America than radial tires is hemp."

With retail chains now offering specials like "Four Tires for $99," how can independent tire producers survive?

"Things were pretty tough for awhile," admits Sidewall. But hundreds of Four Corners area farmers banded together and created a tire co-op, offering tires directly to consumers. Their outlet store is "Western Tire and Used Porch Appliance" in Farmington.

"It's easy to find-just look for the doublewide

with the Big Man on top bringing in the harvest," said Sidewall.

Wade Nelson



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