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California Farmers’ Goal:
Protecting Water Supply

By Brenda Carol
Contributing Editor

Even when the clouds gather and lightening strikes, there’s always a silver lining, as they say. California’s cotton industry has plummeted from its heyday of 1.5 million acres to a projected 150,000-170,000 acres in the upcoming year. Even so, it’s not all doom and gloom.

“There’s still a niche market for high quality cotton,” says Philip Bowles with Bowles Farming Co., in Los Banos, Calif. “We’re going to grow approximately 5,000 acres of cotton in 2009. One of the problems is the mills want high quality cotton, but they don’t want to pay for it.”

The other obvious problem is the depth and suddenness of the global economic downturn.

“Consumption is going down,” says Earl Williams, president and CEO of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association (CCGGA) in Fresno, Calif. “I thought we would see a rebound in demand in 2009, but many textile mills around the world are slowing or shutting down with a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude.”

That said, California’s cotton industry still has much to offer.

“We have good climactic conditions to grow cotton, which has always been a plus in the market backed by dependability of quality and supply,” Williams says. “We have a very good infrastructure already in place in terms of gins, and we have a very good strategically located distribution network that lends itself well to export networks. It’s so well located that over 50 percent of total U.S. cotton exports leave from California ports.

“From a production standpoint, cotton has been a great rotational option for growers in this state. And, first and foremost, don’t ever forget, we can compete with any other country in the world market.”

Cautious Optimism

A similar scenario to California could very well play out in other regions of the U.S. Cotton Belt. Quality remains the distinguishing differential, but price is always an issue.

“As difficult as things seem today in California, I truly believe that we have a good future, albeit a much smaller industry,” Williams says.

“Pima is obviously a bright spot at this point. Global markets have continued to grow for U.S. Pima cotton due to the efforts of Supima. The 2007 crop saw a near record of 850,000 bales of which California produced over 90 percent.

“Because of the economic slowdown and other factors (due to lack of water and prices), I think we will be hard pressed to produce even 450,000 bales of Pima in 2008 in California. That should point to much higher prices for the 2008 crop. But due to the current economic slowdown, all of this is yet to materialize.

“However, in today’s global market for Pima, that’s still pretty good considering the demand is somewhere around 800,000 to one million bales a year. It’s all about supply and demand. If consumers demand high quality cotton, prices should go out the roof.”

Soaring Water Costs

In California, it ultimately boils down to water and cotton prices. In 2008, California Pima producers received somewhere between $1 and $1.25 per pound. Some won’t consider planting Pima this coming year if they can’t get at least $1.50 a pound, according to Williams.

One of the deterrents to growing cotton in the current marketing reality of California has been the price of other commodities such as wheat, corn, safflower and even garbanzo beans. Driving along almost any highway in the state during the summer is reminiscent of a drive through Iowa. The corn is as thick as an elephant’s hide. What will transpire in 2009 when it comes to cotton is largely dependent on how much it rains and snows during the upcoming winter months.

“I can sum it up in three words,” says Vern Crawford, pest control advisor with Wilbur-Ellis in Shafter, Calif. “Water, water, water.”

Even in areas blessed with what used to be considered abundant water resources, the situation is challenging, if not grim, when it comes to cotton.

“It’s pretty easy for growers to switch over to alfalfa or tomatoes,” says Gary Robertson, pest control advisor for Helena Chemical Company in Merced, Calif.

“It’s especially easy if they’re already in that rotation. Cotton isn’t toast, but most of the producers I work with will definitely have less cotton acreage this coming year, and that comes on the heels of most who had less acreage last year as compared to 2007.”

Facing The Challenge

One of the major problems deals with water availability.

“If we have another short water year, then cotton will not be at the top of the planting agenda for many areas,” Williams says. “That will be especially true where there are high concentrations of permanent plantings such as almonds, pistachios and grapes. Another short water year will take its toll on a lot of row crops, including cotton.”

While the water availability problem is very real, California farmers are being as proactive as possible in dealing with the crisis. And, in this case, that means using technology and management practices that can make water use even more efficient.

A non-profit organization in the state – the California Farm Water Coalition – continues to serve as the voice for agricultural water users. The group’s mission is to provide fact-based information on the use of farm water.

The group’s membership consists of farmers, farm water districts and agencies, businesses and individuals representing nearly four million irrigated acres in California.

Intense Management Practices

Even though the water availability will be difficult for cotton producers in the state, that doesn’t mean they won’t employ intensive approaches to preserving their water allocations.

Three approaches to improved water usage for farmers are: drip irrigation, micro-sprinklers and drip tape.

Some cotton farmers, who also plant specialty crops, have experienced real success with drip irrigation. For example, farmers with irrigated crops in the San Luis water district near Los Banos have installed sub-surface systems and needed to apply only 2.25 acre-feet of water as compared to a statewide average of 3 acre-feet.

Fertilizer is spread evenly through the fields by using an innovative injection system that goes directly into the irrigation tape.

“We put the drip line below the root zone, and it’s paying off,” says producer Joe Del Bosque who farms a diversified farm of 800 acres along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

“If we need to give the plant more water, we can do it without the surface getting wet or disrupting harvest.”

A Hopeful Outlook

The problems confronting the state’s cotton producers still exist, such as less acreage, high input costs and the well-publicized cost of water. But the water strategy is an example of how technology is working for those who employ this kind of approach.

That proactive attitude is what gives Earl Williams hope for the future.

“The good news is that we will always be capable of producing very high quality cotton that continues to be in demand globally,” he says.

That optimism sustains many farmers in California – no matter how many obstacles they encounter.

Contact Brenda Carol in Paso Robles, Calif., at brenda@brendacarol.net or (805) 226-9896.

Benefits Of Effective Irrigation In California

• Less water applied to the crop during the growing season.
• Water applied more frequently to the crop.
• Water loss to evaporation eliminated.
• Plant growth is more uniform.
• Nutrients applied directly to root zone.
• Runoff of irrigation water is eliminated.

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