The downward spiral of California cotton plantings will continue this year, with only 170,000 estimated acres.
Roger Isom, president of the California Cotton Growers Association, told members at the association’s 25th annual meeting in Visalia there were three reasons for the lowest total cotton acres planted since the 1920s.
“Water, prices and competing crops are the reasons cotton planting is down,” Isom told growers.
The 170,000-acre figure for planting came from a survey of growers. Isom said there was a 100 percent response from growers and the total could be plus or minus 10,000 to 15,000 acres. The total includes 135,000 acres of pima cotton and 35,000 acres of upland cotton.
A slightly different estimate was announced last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service. NASS forecast total acreage at 155,000 acres, including 110,000 acres of pima cotton and 45,000 acres of upland varieties.
This will be the third year in a row that cotton planting has dwindled. Last year, Isom warned farmers that a continued decrease in acres would affect infrastructure. Once a signature crop of the San Joaquin Valley, cotton had to compete with silage and alfalfa crops used primarily by dairies.
High-value nut crops have taken a bite out of traditional row cropland in recent years, cutting further into cotton acreage. Although cotton has been used as a rotation crop by many growers, more expensive inputs, including water, have driven growers to higher-value crops. Cotton acres in 2012 totaled 366,000 acres, during a year of high prices for cotton lint and seed.
“There is an amazing transformation going on here from field crops and dairies to trees,” said Mark Watte, a Tulare farmer who has all three commodities.
This year, Watte planted only 615 acres of cotton, down from 1,100 acres last year. Three hundred of those lost cotton acres were planted to trees.
“It’s all acala cotton, “ he said of this year’s crop. In Tulare County historically, Watte said, pima yields are about a bale less an acre, so it takes a huge price difference to make up for that lower yield.
“We looked at the acres, the crops and the amount of water we had and made our planting decisions,” Watte said. “Some of that drop in acres is the drought and some is the trees. You have to look at the value of the crop, the amount of water you have.”
The cotton was planted in mid- to late March and the season is off to a great start, Watte said, noting that planting was about two weeks earlier than normal.
Drought isn’t the only problem facing the state’s cotton sector. A sudden increase in whitefly population threatens to become unmanageable and continues to puzzle growers and pest experts.
Whiteflies feed on plant sap and then excrete “honeydew.” The sweet, sticky honeydew settles on open cotton bolls. If sticky cotton makes its way to ginning mills, it gums up the machinery, which brings the gin to a halt.
Farmers are concerned, because sticky cotton leads to a sticky reputation.
When Fresno County cotton grower Paul Betancourt got a call from the gin manager saying sticky cotton was found, he said he was shocked. He and other growers in the region are working with University of California experts to try to figure out what has caused this spike in whitefly population and what to do about it.
It’s not the first time this pest has hurt cotton crops. Fifteen years ago when growers noticed sticky cotton, they jumped on the problem and took care of it with insect growth regulators. And in the Imperial Valley, where cotton acreage has now shrunk to about 1,500 acres, they found that planting melons next to cotton supplied the pest with constant food, so cutting down on melon planting to just once a year instead of rotating it more often helped reduce the whitefly problem.
Growers, therefore, placed a lower priority on the pest until two years ago, when it began to rapidly build back up in population. Treatments are not helping this time around, because the whitefly just comes back a week or two later. Why it’s happening is the question that has people worried.
“Many years ago, Arizona had a whitefly problem and it took them over 10 years to climb out of the issue,” Isom said. “When you have sticky cotton that goes to a ginning mill, one bale can shut down a line of machines and it can hurt the entire mill.”
In Arizona, the mills stopped buying local cotton until the problem was resolved. Isom said he hopes 2015 will not be a repeat of the last two years, when the whitefly plagued cotton crops. The drought has reduced cotton and melon crops further, which he said might help cut down on the pest’s population.
Cotton growers are now in a wait-and-watch mode. Whiteflies build up in July-August and leave by September-October, when cotton crops have defoliated.
But by then, they’ve already done damage, unless the crop gets light rain, which can wash the sticky sugars out. There is no known biocontrol agent, but UC researchers are working with farmers to find methods to control the pest.
UC researcher Pete Goodell said the honeydew problem results in discounted prices for growers and requires a management program to prevent. Management, Goodell said, includes early sampling for nymphs and treatments when population thresholds are reached. He said sampling early in the growing season and looking below the canopy at the lower parts of cotton plants is important.
A panel of growers shared their observations of whitefly infestations. Betancourt said in spite of a close watch at boll opening last year, whitefly infestation caused sticky cotton in his fields. He applied agricultural chemicals, but whiteflies seemed to “shake it off,” he said.
“This is not good. We’re losing money on quality. That is a big deal on the global market,” he said.
Doug Devaney, a pest control advisor for JG Boswell, said sticky cotton is the biggest single quality issue. JG Boswell operates its own gins and is able to tag cotton modules that are suspect, to keep them from contaminating clean cotton. They sample each bale, he said, for sticky cotton.
His observation is that neighboring crops can have an influence on whitefly pressure. If the neighbors do not spray, Devaney said, there is a problem. Restrictions on certain other control materials in neighboring crops also affect their ability to control whitefly.
UC Davis integrated pest management researcher Larry Godfrey said whiteflies appear to have become more difficult to control in the last two years. At the Shafter research station, he said whiteflies had not been a problem until two years ago. Last year, he noted, it took four pesticide applications to knock down whitefly populations.
Chlorpyrifos is one of the only materials cotton growers have used to control cotton aphid and whitefly. The Cotton Crop Team, formed by UC and cotton-sector representatives to take a critical look at use of this product in cotton, reported that the loss of alternatives has placed more importance on chlorpyrifos and driven increased use. Those alternatives include carbofuran, endosulfan, aldicarb and methamidophos. Chlorpyrifos is the only material that is effective and penetrates plant canopy for late-season cotton aphid and whitefly control, the report said.
The team also identified research needs, including evaluation of efficacy of alternative control materials, resistant cotton varieties and new approaches for pesticide application.
They also cited policy changes, including asking the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider factors leading to Section 18 critical-use exemption beyond economics and include implications of additional alternative products on improving IPM.
Despite these issues, California still had two of the best years on record in terms of yield and quality in 2013 and 2014, Isom said, with about 670,000 bales of cotton.
(Cecilia Parsons is a reporter in Ducor. Padma Nagappan is a reporter in San Diego. Article courtesy California Farm Bureau Federation.)