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Water shortage limits more cotton acres as price surges

Issue Date: May 18, 2022
By Ching Lee
A field of pima cotton grows in Buttonwillow. Record-high cotton prices inspired California farmers to plant 10% to 25% more acreage than last year, according to early estimates.
Photo/Matthew Cauzza

Considering the red-hot price of cotton these days, California farmers say they would love to plant more of the field crop—if only they have the water.

State cotton growers have increased plantings by a modest 10% more than last year, according to preliminary estimates by the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association. In its March prospective plantings report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated state cotton acreage at 142,000 this year, up more than 24%.

"We should see wall-to-wall cotton out there, and it's not," said Roger Isom, association president and CEO.

The price of pima cotton, a higher-end type of cotton that dominates state production, has reached record levels at around $3.40 a pound compared $1.20 to $1.50 during the past two years, he noted. Upland cotton prices also remain at historic highs—rising to more than $1.20 a pound from the more-typical 75 to 85 cents in recent years.

Given current prices, Isom said increased state acreage comes as no surprise. But he lamented another year of drought has limited the amount that got planted.

Such was the case with Kern County farmer Matthew Cauzza, who for the past three years has had to leave one field unplanted due to lack of water. Because his family has been growing cotton since the 1930s, they're set up to grow and harvest cotton, which he described as "a safer bet" because of its "consistent outcome" compared to other crops he's grown.

He pointed to cotton's versatility, which allows him to rotate it in between vegetable crops such as tomatoes, onion and garlic. There's also "nostalgia" about cotton, he said, recalling growing up in a region where "every field was just cotton."

"We want to hold on to that a little bit, as long as we can do it," Cauzza said. "Water is the only thing that's keeping us from growing more cotton."

California cotton acreage peaked at 1.4 million to 1.6 million during the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today, with drought limiting water supplies to farms and more land transitioning to permanent crops such as tree nuts, cotton acreage has declined to about 10% of what it used to be.

Because so few acres are being grown, Isom said there's concern that low cotton volumes won't be able to support the state's remaining commercial cotton gins, which have dropped to about a handful. Also, growers who got out of growing cotton have sold their cotton-picking equipment, he noted.

"If those go away, how do you pick your cotton and get it to the gin?" Isom said. "We're definitely seeing that and are very concerned on the infrastructure side of it."

Besides water shortages, depressed cotton prices in recent years eroded grower interest in planting the crop. Demand for cotton plunged during the height of the pandemic, when textile mills shuttered and people were buying less apparel. The market roared back last year, as shoppers returned to stores and mills ramped up production, devouring cotton stocks.

With a new crop on the horizon, Isom characterized the economic outlook for cotton as "cautiously optimistic." If demand stays up and supplies remain short, he said, prices will hold strong. But he warned cotton prices are now at a point where merchants and mills are buying less and turning to synthetic fibers. The good news, he said, is the soaring oil market has increased the cost of petroleum-based fibers such as polyester and rayon.

For pima cotton at least, Isom said he thinks higher prices could hold through next season, though it will be "pretty tough" to sustain current prices. California still grows the majority of the world's pima, and the slight bump in acreage this year won't "make a big dent" in supply, he added. Other producers of extra-long staple cotton to watch include China, India and Pakistan as to how their crops turn out.

With upland cotton, focus will be on Texas, the nation's top cotton producer, which has also faced a punishing drought. If the Lone Star State gets rain and produces a "decent-size crop of decent quality," Isom said, then prices might soften.

Though "the main attraction" for growing cotton this year is the price, Merced County farmer Bill Crivelli said another big driver is it uses less water than corn and processing tomatoes, two competing crops that have also seen prices move up.

"The tomato price is probably the highest it's ever been too, but tomatoes are kind of risky," he said, noting diseases such as tomato spotted wilt and curly top virus that could wreck fields. Tomatoes and corn also require more fertilizer to make a good crop compared to cotton, he pointed out.

In addition, having his own cotton picker makes cotton an easier choice over corn, Crivelli said, because "hardly any growers have corn harvesters," so they would have to pay for custom harvest.

Because cotton is one of the last crops planted, Fresno County grower Mark McKean said it is often the one that gets cut out of the planting schedule when water is limited. He noted his cropping plan was already in place last October, when he also considered growing canning tomatoes and garlic or onions, all of which are contract crops he's committed to grow. To make it work, he reduced his typical cotton acreage by 15% to 20%, but he will need to use surface water and groundwater to grow it.

"I would have more acres if I had more water available," he said.

Kings County farmer Charles Meyer had planned to grow 300 acres of cotton this year, but after his well went down, he was able to get only 30 acres planted. He's grown up to 2,000 acres in the past, but now most of that ground is planted to almonds, pistachios and alfalfa. He didn't plant any cotton last year due to lack of water.

Besides the higher price, Meyer said, another incentive for growing cotton is he's part of a cooperative that markets the commodity. He said he plans to use different agronomic approaches and new practices on the cotton he managed to plant.

"You might say these 30 acres is an experimental crop, because we're going to try to handle it a little bit different because of the lack of water," Meyer said. "We're always trying to learn new ways to improve and make it more efficient."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

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




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