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.
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
"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
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?"
"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.