Arizona Cotton Facts We Can’t Ignore

Arizona Farm Bureau Strategic Communications

While cotton’s footprint in Arizona has shrunk in terms of acres planted (in earlier decades as much as 500,000 to 600,000 acres of cotton in Arizona were planted), the story of cotton in our state continues to resonate with Arizona families. Here are a few facts to keep in mind.

→ Even though cotton is over 5,000 years old, the people who grew and used it throughout the globe never met each other. Some of them even lived on different sides of an ocean, but astonishingly enough, they still managed to develop similar tools to clean, prepare, spin and weave this natural fiber.

Cotton seeds are tough enough to survive travel across oceans on the wind. This could explain how botanists are not sure where the first cotton plants came from, and probably why similar varieties sometimes grow thousands of miles apart. But it does explain why the Hohokam Indian tribe was growing it thousands of years ago here in the southwest. Arizona is cotton country on an ancient scale!

Despite its well-earned reputation of casual comfort, the actual word “cotton” is an English version of the Arabic “qutun” or “kutun,” a generic term meaning fancy fabric. One of cotton’s original popular names was “vegetable wool.”

Cotton is a sustainable and renewable fiber. Typically, the seed is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall once the green bolls have opened to produce the fluffy, white fiber (a long-season growing crop; compared to 60 days for lettuce to mature).

Over the years, seed varieties of cotton continue to improve. Next year, Bt cotton (Biotech) will complete 28 years of cultivation in the United States. Despite the challenges of misinformation in the public forum, this seed technology has enjoyed the confidence of farmers, researchers and policymakers. Bt cotton has not only benefited farmers but also the textile industry, and oil industry and boosted economies throughout the globe. This genetically modified seed has saved countless billions in pesticide use and improved cotton yields as destructive pests were eradicated.

We’ve been growing cotton in Arizona since the Hohokam, a prehistoric North American indigenous people group who lived approximately A.D. 1 to 1,450 in the semiarid region of present-day central and southern Arizona, largely along the Gila and Salt Rivers. Their original canal systems mapped the way for our modern-day systems.

People forget that cotton is also a food product. The cottonseed oil produced from the harvested seed crop is considered a healthy cooking oil and chefs love it for its high flashpoint (can heat the oil higher than olive oil without burning it) and because it’s tasteless. Additionally, crushed cotton seed is used to feed livestock.

Cotton is 100% biodegradable and compostable. Under aerobic or anaerobic conditions, cotton wipes made of cotton will biodegrade completely in four weeks.

Arizona cotton, along with California cotton, is some of the whitest, highest-quality cotton in the nation. One main reason is that Arizona and California irrigate the cotton fields. With so little rainfall in the southwest, the cotton fiber is not at risk for compromised quality due to wind and rain.

One of the finest extra-long staple (ELS) cotton was developed and grown right here in Arizona. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in Sacaton, Arizona, had a breeding program that helped develop the ELS cotton. 

Arizona cotton farmer DeAnna Diwan, based in Pinal County, recently shared a rich family history on the Rosie on the House Show. “Like his father before him, dad knows the soil in and out,” she said. “The farming now is me and my father, and cotton is our favorite crop. Cotton harvest is like Christmas to me.”

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