• By Ching Lee •
Lack of water for agriculture could dampen prospects for California farmers to grow more cotton, even as prices for the commodity have soared.
Diminished global cotton inventories and increased demand for the fiber are expected to keep markets strong. But farmers say higher prices may not be enough to justify more plantings next year if water supplies remain limited for farming.
With cotton harvest fully underway in the state, farmers should reap “a fantastic price” for this year’s crop, said Roger Isom, president and CEO of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association.
“If you were able to grow it, you’re going to be very happy,” he said. “But there’s a lot of people out there that wish they could have planted cotton this year and just couldn’t do it.”
Cotton production worldwide has suffered in recent years due to depressed prices, Isom said. As a result, farmers chose to plant crops such as corn and soybeans that are more profitable. The pandemic further collapsed markets as textile mills shuttered and demand for apparel and other cotton products plummeted.
The state’s ongoing drought also took a toll on cotton production: It forced growers to devote limited water supplies to keeping trees and vines alive while fallowing ground for annual crops such as cotton.
California production drops by more than one-third
California farmers planted 111,000 acres of cotton this year, a drop of more than 38% from 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some 86,000 acres went to Pima cotton, an extra-long staple specialty variety grown mostly in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The state also grew 25,000 acres of upland cotton. Isom noted these numbers are lower than what industry originally expected.
Now that shoppers are returning to stores and many mills have ramped up production, rising demand for cotton has zapped supplies, Isom said. With a new smaller crop this year, markets are responding.
“I don’t know if these are sustainable at the price levels we’re seeing now, but it looks really good,” Isom said.
Prices also have been strong for cottonseed, used mostly as livestock feed for dairies. Isom noted that supply chain disruptions related to shipping lines have constrained imports from places such as Australia, leaving “very little” supply in California.
Aaron Barcellos, who farms in Merced and Fresno counties, grew only Pima cotton this year on about 700 acres. He said reduced water allocations forced him to fallow about 2,000 acres. Because of his permanent crops, Barcellos said he keeps that ground open as “insurance” during drought years for when he needs the water for his trees.
“With the prices the last several years, pima was below the cost of production; we just couldn’t budget it,” he said.
The current price rally on cotton does make the crop more attractive to farmers, he said, but “it really gets back to water.”
“You’ve still got the unknown of what is our water supply going to be (next year),” Barcellos said.
Competing crops such as processing tomatoes also play a role, farmers say. Many farmers who grow cotton also grow tomatoes, Barcellos noted, and they will make crop choices based on commodity prices and how much water will be available.
Isom pointed out that tomato canners “are scrambling to find growers because there’s not enough (acreage) out there.” He said they’re already talking about offering a higher contract price for tomatoes to entice growers to plant more.
With the current price of cotton, Merced County grower Gino Pedretti III said he’s fortunate that he had enough water to grow his usual acreage. He received some surface water from the Merced Irrigation District and was able to supplement with well water. He planted about 40% of his cotton acreage to Pima, with upland occupying the rest. Yields appear to be above average, he said.
“Price is good right now,” he said. “If there’s more water and price is decent, guys will probably plant more acres, but it’s really water-dependent.”
With cotton in short supply, especially Pima, Pedretti said prices should hold for next year. Unless he receives zero allocation from the irrigation district, he said he plans to maintain his same acreage.
Colorado River Basin
In Riverside County, cotton harvest should start in about a month, with farmers there reporting “a good crop,” said Rosie Navarro, manager of Modern Ginning Co. In Blythe. Cotton acreage in the region—which grows only upland—increased this year, she noted, citing water rights to the Colorado River as a big factor.
“We’re able to have a little bit more water than in the Northern or Central Valley,” she said. “But that might not be the case for next year or the following year.”
With declines to the Colorado River due to drought, Navarro said water cutbacks could lead to less cotton grown in the region next year, though how much less will depend on commodity prices.
“Our farmers are trying to figure out how to grow, whether it’s cotton or any other commodity,” she said. “Pricing for cotton has gone up substantially, so that’s helped sway them over to cotton, but I don’t think we’ll ever be to the point that we were years ago.”
Based on current projections for what looks to be another dry winter, Isom said he doesn’t think California will grow any more cotton than what was planted this year — maybe even less. With the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act starting to phase in, there could be additional restrictions for farmers, he added.
“Long term, I think the price (of cotton) is going to be higher than it has been for the last 15, 20 years,” Isom said. “But it’s all going to be a function of how much water we can get, what kind of winter we have.”
Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com. This article originally appeared in the California Farm Bureau Federation’s Ag Alert newspaper.