Don’t bet the entire farm on alfalfa, corn, tomatoes and trees or whatever last year’s trend was in California agriculture. Just when you thought it might be over for cotton in the Golden State, here come some positive numbers lurking around the corner – at least according to certain observers.
“The cotton outlook is a lot better,” says Philip Bowles, president of Bowles Farming Company near Los Banos, Calif. “Inventories of all textiles are low, and through some weird connection, rain tarnished the crop almost everywhere last year in all regions of the world except California. The other point I would like to make is California still leads the world in quality, even when the global competitive cotton farmers are having a good year.”
Those assessments are also shared by industry leaders who have watched cotton acreage decrease dramatically in California for the past few years.
“I’m more enthusiastic about the future of California cotton than I’ve been in a long time,” says Earl Williams, California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association president in Fresno, Calif. “Producers are getting back into cotton. I would say about 30 to 40 percent who abandoned the crop for alternative crops are now coming back to it.”
Currently, the expectation is that between 200,000 and 360,000 acres of cotton will be planted in California.
“It depends on what happens with water allocation and the price of cotton,” Williams says. “In September, we sold out of ’08 Pima and now ’09 is selling, which seems to be pushing prices higher. We’re looking at $1.30 to $1.40 (per pound) for Pima and over 80 cents for upland.”
That sentiment is echoed by Bowles as well as others, and it translates into cautiously optimistic numbers in planting intentions as well as price regardless of whether it’s Pima or upland varieties.
“We will probably increase our cotton acreage a bit in response to the better prices,” Bowles says. “This increase will come at the expense of acres planned for wheat, or any older alfalfa stands that are not holding up well. There are some decent opportunities for growers to protect themselves on next year’s cotton. The price could always be higher, but when has that not been the case?”
Williams expects the split in acreage between Pima and upland will run from 60 percent Pima/40 percent upland to perhaps as high as 70/30.
The Choice: Pima Or Acala
Bowles sees some planting options utilizing either Pima or upland cotton.
“We’re so far north that Pima is pretty risky,” he says. “We try to plant 10 to 20 percent to Pima or Hazera, and the rest to Acala, which we generally roller-gin. If it’s a lousy spring, and we can’t plant until the second week in April, we’ll forgo planting any Pima.”
Factors such as the state of the dairy industry, water issues and crop competition, which drove the California cotton market into the dust over the past few years, are now some of the same factors bringing it back.
“A lot of growers invested in alternative crops – either permanent or row crops – which penciled out a lot more profitably as compared to cotton,” Williams says. “Now the dynamics have changed somewhat. Additionally, cotton is a good rotational crop for tomatoes, garlic, onions and other row crops. It also works well on drip, which many growers have put in place.”
Water Is Unknown Factor
As always, water is the big unknown factor in the equation. Recent rains that have triggered fears of mudslides for homeowners in the state have simultaneously triggered hopes for a better 2010 in the agricultural world.
“Even though our water situation in the Los Banos area is better than some, the effects of a drought (legislative or otherwise) have terrible impacts all over the state,” Bowles says. “From an engineering, biological and economic standpoint, all farmers dependent on surface water deliveries in California are yoked together, even if some presently suffer more than others.”
In the long-term, the competition for water resources will only get fiercer, according to almost anyone with expertise in the field. It’s not only a matter of conservation, but also a matter of environmental impact.
“Our district is rapidly converting to buried drip, which not only increases yield and saves water and labor,” Bowles says. “It also reduces runoff, which will become more and more of an issue in the years ahead.”
Brenda Carol is Contributing Editor for Cotton Farming magazine and resides in Paso Robles, Calif. Contact her at email@example.com or (805) 226-9896.
Adequate Rainfall, Snow Needed To Close Water Deficit In State
On Dec. 1, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced an initial allocation of five percent of total contracted water deliveries to the State Water Project (SWP) contractors for 2010. According to DWR Director Lester Snow, five percent is the lowest initial allocation percentage since the SWP began delivering water in 1967.
The initial allocation figure reflects the low carryover storage levels in the state’s major reservoirs, ongoing drought conditions and federally mandated environmental restrictions.
The initial allocation is a very conservative estimate of what DWR expects it can deliver as a percentage of SWP contractors’ initial requests for contracted water deliveries for a calendar year. While the initial 2010 allocation is only five percent of that amount, actual deliveries are expected to increase during the year once actual hydrologic and water supply conditions are known.