Weather, prices shrink cotton acreage in California

For the first time in a century, California cotton acreage will likely drop to fewer than 100,000 acres due in part to soggy ground at planting and better prices for competing crops.

A recent ginner survey by the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association estimated planted acres at 99,000, plus or minus 10%. The U.S. Department of Agriculture acreage report, released on June 30, put plantings at 83,000 acres.

CCGGA President and CEO Roger Isom acknowledged the organization’s survey isn’t perfect, but he said he couldn’t understand the large disparity.

“Quite honestly, it doesn’t make sense,” Isom said. “I think everybody knew cotton acres were going to be down because of the (Tulare) lake flooding and the short planting window, especially for pima, which is what we mostly grow out here. Tomato plantings also are up, and corn plantings are up, so I think a lot of the guys who would have planted cotton went with other crops. But I don’t know how that got down to (83,000 acres).”

He pointed to California Department of Food and Agriculture pink bollworm program figures, which tend to be more accurate because the state maps and verifies each cotton field for assessment purposes. The program recently released San Joaquin Valley 2023 planted cotton figures of 93,229 acres, with another 5,059 cotton acres in Riverside and Imperial counties.

Of USDA’s California estimate, 70,000 acres were long-staple, premium pima varieties that typically net more than double the price of the shorter-staple upland or acala varieties grown mostly in Texas and the South.

California’s remaining 13,000 acres are upland varieties, according to the USDA report, and most of those are grown for planting seed because of the state’s near-ideal growing conditions.

California produces about 95% of the nation’s pima. Because the variety requires a much longer growing season than upland cotton, Isom said it must be planted in late March or early April.

Aaron Barcellos, a partner in the family-owned A-Bar Ag Enterprises in Fresno County, said cold, wet weather along with low prices prompted them to reduce pima plantings to about 750 acres this year. Without those factors, he said they probably would have had double the acreage.

“Primarily, we just couldn’t get in on the ground because it was too wet and too cold,” Barcellos said. “And with the price of pima, there wasn’t a lot of encouragement.”

The calendar also weighed into the decision. For every day past April 20 that pima is planted, Barcellos said a general rule of thumb predicts a 1% yield decrease. In addition, deadline to plant the variety and take advantage of crop insurance is April 30.

Instead, the family planted more processing tomatoes this season because of attractive pricing, and the crop could be planted later.

The late cotton planting has Barcellos concerned about harvest. Even if the crop is still growing and setting bolls in mid-October, he said he planned to sacrifice additional yield so they can harvest it before expected rains.

“I’m worried about the fall,” Barcellos said. “We have so much riding on this cotton being late—and our tomatoes as well. We’ll probably have to cut the (cotton) plants off and defoliate them and take what we can just so we can get across the acres.”

With the continuing loss of California cotton production comes the shuttering of more gins—a huge concern for Isom. Once a gin is shut down, it will likely never process cotton again, he said.

“One of the things that guys are finding is if equipment sits too long, we get people coming in and stealing wire, and that becomes a real challenge,” he said. “I think if a gin closes, you’re not going to see it come back.”

In talking to ginner members this year, Isom said one or two are considering closing. Currently, the valley is home to about 15 gins, which separate cotton fiber from seeds. Twenty years ago, 65 to 75 gins operated.

Some of the reduction can be attributed to increased efficiencies, as it doesn’t take as many modern gins to process the same amount of cotton, Isom said. But most reductions are due to declining acreage.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, cotton was king in the San Joaquin Valley, maxing out at about 1.6 million planted acres. But cotton lost its luster as prolonged droughts plagued the valley, irrigation water was permanently diverted for environmental demands and other crops offered higher potential returns.

In 2022, California farmers planted 134,000 acres of cotton. Whether growers come close to that in 2024 will depend partly on the price of pima at planting, Isom said.

“If the price is back to where it was the last two years, we’ll be over 100,000 acres,” he said.

Barcellos also remains optimistic.

“It looks like with the reservoir storage and water levels we have, if we have just an average winter, we should have the resources to plant cotton,” he said.

“What really will determine that is the market,” he added. “Hopefully, we can see this market rebound. If that happens, I could see California being up possibly 50%. If we see a good number on the pricing, we could get back to 150,000 (acres).”

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