Conditions favor a good cotton harvest in 2012

Issue Date: October 17, 2012
By Steve Adler
Cotton harvest is in full swing in the San Joaquin Valley as growers reap the rewards of a favorable growing season.
Photo/Cecelia Parsons
Newly picked cotton is loaded into a module builder at Brian Watte’s farm in Tulare County. Cotton will be harvested on 366,000 acres in California this season.
Photo/Cecelia Parsons

With harvest now in full swing, cotton yields are approaching four bales to the acre, bringing smiles to the faces of growers in the San Joaquin Valley.

California's planted acreage of cotton this year is projected to be about 366,000 acres, down from last year's figure of 454,000 acres, but still up considerably from the 190,000 acres planted in 2009. The crop, which up until a few years ago topped 1 million acres on a consistent basis, has evolved to become a rotation crop, following such other row crops as tomatoes, onions or garlic.

Cotton has benefited from excellent growing conditions and a fall harvest period void of destructive rain events so far, according to growers throughout the state's cotton belt, which ranges from Kern County northward to Merced.

"Weather during the growing season has been optimal," said cotton grower Brian Watte of Tulare County. "It was cooler during the growing season, so there was no heat to knock off fruit. Then the extra heat at the end helped the crop finish a little sooner than normal."

Watte started harvest about one week earlier than usual. Disease and pest pressure was very minimal this year, he said.

Like many farmers, Watte plants cotton as a rotation crop. Prices, while still good, have dropped from last year's returns and as a result Watte said he will plant fewer acres of cotton in 2013. Instead, he will shift more of the farm's acreage to black-eyed beans and corn, which are bringing higher returns.

Farther north, Merced County diversified grower Pat Borelli also expressed satisfaction over the quality of this year's cotton crop. He planted the crop on the same ground that had cotton in 2011 and Borelli said this year's cotton looks better.

"This has been a good year for us. We had enough water, so we didn't have that worry to contend with," he said. "The quality should be good. Hopefully, the weather holds."

Earl Williams, president and CEO of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations, said the early reports from this year's harvest indicate strong yields, but not record yields.

"Fruit retention is some of the highest levels that we have seen, so overall expectations are good and the early harvest results are proving out," he said. "We will have first picking going on through October and into November. Most all the pima cotton is second-picked and I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't some second picking going on into December."

Jarral Neeper, president of the Bakersfield-based grower cooperative Calcot, said hot weather during the growing season "set some guys back and probably took the opportunity for a record yield off the table, but overall from a production year the growers couldn't really ask for a much better year. It wasn't perfect, but it certainly was above average."

While farmers were blessed with favorable growing conditions, the same cannot be said for marketing opportunities, Neeper said, citing the very large carryover of world cotton inventory, which is projected to increase by 10 million bales to 79 million bales this year.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report forecast global stocks for 2012-13 at a record level for the second consecutive year, causing prices to plummet. USDA forecast the season average farm price down to 68 cents per pound. The report estimated overall U.S. cotton production at 17.3 million 480-pound bales, up 11 percent from last year.

Both Williams and Neeper noted that cotton acreage has been lost to permanent crops in recent years.

"Right now there are a lot of great alternatives out here for the grower, like almonds and pistachios," Neeper said. "It is one of the advantages of being a grower here in California: There are so many possibilities out here. And growers need to be opportunistic—they need to plant the crops that will give them the biggest bang for their buck. Even with cotton, maybe growers won't make those huge margins, but they pretty much are assured of making some money. And it would be a shame to not have some cotton in the rotation."

Williams noted that the drop in cotton acreage in recent years resulted from many factors, including the other crop alternatives, an influx of new dairies from Southern California to the San Joaquin Valley, and the lack of a reliable water supply.

"Between permanent plantings and the dairies, cotton has evolved into just one of many crops. I tell people that there is no such thing as a cotton grower in California anymore. Cotton is just one of many, many crops that are involved in their planting mixes," he said.

Looking forward, Williams said there are a lot of pressures on the market, with prices to growers having dropped from 2010 and 2011 levels, plus the water uncertainty that farmers face each year.

"When you start allotting water, the first allocations are going to go to the permanent crops to protect those investments and the row crops take the back seat," he said. "And you are competing with other crops that are contracted for good prices, so cotton is not always in that mix."

But Williams said he doesn't think cotton is going to disappear from the San Joaquin Valley any time soon.

"It is a good rotation crop and many growers are looking upon it on that basis. It is a good crop to follow tomatoes and clean up the ground. A lot of onions and garlic are grown on the Westside and cotton works well in those rotations. And cotton does very well on drip (irrigation). A large percentage of our growers on the Westside are 100 percent drip on all their acreages, and that includes substantial acres of cotton," he said.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.