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Weather, Prices, Other Factors Cloud California Cotton Outlook

• By Cecilia Parsons •

nick serafin, california

Tulare-area farmer Nick Serafin checks his crop of Upland cotton — photo by Cecilia Parsons

California’s 2019 cotton crop will struggle this year as a result of late spring rains, shaky pricing and the loss of a key crop-protection material, according to farmers and marketers.

Roger Isom, president of the California Cotton Growers and Ginners Association, said a farmer survey in mid-May indicated cotton was planted on 261,000 acres in California this year, a slight increase from last year.

U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show California cotton farmers planted 211,000 acres of Pima cotton and 48,000 acres of Upland varieties in 2018. The bulk of the production came from Kern, Tulare, Fresno, Kings and Merced counties, and quality and yields were encouraging for growers last year.

Pima cotton varieties continue to dominate cotton planting this year. Isom reported about 60,000 acres were planted to Upland cotton varieties. Planting of Pima and Pima-hybrid varieties surpassed the traditional Upland varieties starting in 2011, but the need for a longer growing season may have curtailed Pima planting this spring.

Cool and wet spring weather delayed cotton planting in the San Joaquin Valley, mainly in the northern growing regions, and farmers were not able to plant early and ensure a full growing season for Pima. The longer-staple cotton needs a longer growing season to produce yields and quality.

Crop Off To Slow Start

Cotton grower Cannon Michael of Los Banos said the crop is off to a slow start due to the earlier cool weather.

His crop was not affected by the severe rain and hail that hit the week of May 19 and shredded young cotton plants in the Huron and Five Points areas to the south. Isom said the total damage to this year’s crop would not be known for several weeks.

Low cotton prices played a role in planting decisions this spring, according to Mark Bagby of the Calcot marketing cooperative in Bakersfield. Tariffs imposed by China, one of the largest export markets for U.S. cotton, put a damper on prices.

Bagby said cotton prices peaked last summer at 90 cents for upland and $1.25-$1.30 for Pima, but have dropped to 65 cents for Upland and $1.15 for Pima. He said industry consensus was that a large crop predicted worldwide plus the tariff issue hurt prices.

Low prices likely affected cotton planting decisions, Michael agreed, adding that those who grow cotton as part of their crop rotation will continue to plant.

Michael, a long-time cotton grower, said his crop this year consists of Upland cotton and a Pima-upland hybrid. He said this cotton variety behaves like an Upland variety but has the staple length of Pima and is graded similar to Pima. Prices are discounted below Pima, he said, but the better yields compensate for the price. Michael said his farm is a little too far north to grow the long-season Pima, but the hybrid grows well in his area.

Chlorpyrifos On The Chopping Block

The move last month to cancel California registration for chlorpyrifos products dealt a blow to cotton growers.

Isom said chlorpyrifos serves as the only reliable control product for whiteflies and late-season aphids, serious cotton pests that affect crop quality. These pests invade cotton fields prior to harvest, and their feeding produces honeydew, resulting in “sticky cotton.” Sticky cotton harvested and delivered to gins causes serious problems with the processing machinery, making cotton buyers extremely averse to it because cleaning the machinery is costly and time-consuming.

Farmers may not know they have a problem with their harvest until receiving a call from the gin.

Isom said prevention of sticky cotton must be done in the field, but the loss of chlorpyrifos products will make that difficult.

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The California Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Pesticide Regulation announced the process to cancel registrations for chlorpyrifos products in May. Chlorpyrifos was listed as a toxic air contaminant last year, and tighter restrictions were placed on its use.

Though chlorpyrifos products remain available, Isom said new restrictions make it impossible to use on cotton for the control of whiteflies and aphids. He said permits only allow 40 acres to be treated in a 24-hour period, and aerial treatments are not allowed.

Cotton was one of five California crops in a University of California Integrated Pest Management study of alternatives to chlorpyrifos for insect pest control. In order to reserve chlorpyrifos for critical use in almonds, alfalfa, cotton, citrus and grapes, researchers looked for effective alternative crop-protection materials.

For whitefly and aphid control, Isom said, the neonicitinoid product Belay was listed as an alternative. It was effective, he said, but pulled from cotton use to protect honeybees. There are no new products coming on the market to replace Belay or chlorpyrifos, Isom said.

Water availability will not be a big concern for cotton growers this year, Isom said, noting that decisions on planting were made when the 55-65% surface water allocation for south-of-delta agricultural water contractors was made by the federal Central Valley Project. The CVP has since raised that allocation to 75% and the State Water Project also raised its allocation to 75% last in late June.

This article originally appeared in Ag Alert, the weekly newspaper of the California Farm Bureau Federation.