It’s AG3601, an upland that grows like Deltapine 90, according to Pinal County, Ariz., producer Bill Scott, who is chairman of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association Seed Breeding Development Committee.

It is a columnar type with excellent lint quality, high heat tolerance and low micronaire, all traits Arizona cotton producers say they have needed desperately to stay in business, but until now have not been given by commercial seed companies.

They stopped waiting and started their own breeding program, the first grower funded program of its kind in the U.S.

Scott said there would be enough seed to plant only about 3,500 acres of AG3601 this year. That’s not much, but it is remarkable and extraordinarily fortunate that there is even a variety to plant.

"When we started this project of developing our own cotton variety, we told growers we hoped to shorten the seven- to 10-year time frame it normally takes to develop a new cotton variety," said Scott. "We basically got our first variety in less than a year, and we are naturally tickled to death."

Good, bad luck

Obviously, new varieties are not developed that quickly and it was strokes of good and bad luck that Arizona Cotton Growers Association has its first variety.

Arizona Cotton Growers Association hired its own seed breeder last fall. He is Michael Gilbert, former breeder at Delta and Pine Land Co. and Helena and son of legendary Deltapine cotton breeder Elmer Gilbert. Gilbert has been an independent breeder for several years.

He was hired using assessment funds collected by the Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council. However, much of Gilbert’s nursery near Eloy, Ariz., was wiped out last season by herbicide drift.

However, Another independent Arizona cotton breeder, Ron Thorpe, Delta and Pine’s former quality control director in Arizona, had a variety that caught the attention of Scott and his committee.

"Ron was developing the variety for a company overseas, but in November it looked like that deal was not going to happen and he offered it to us and we jumped on it," said Scott.

Scott said the variety licensed to sell by Arizona cotton growers looks a lot like Deltapine 90, an Acala type cotton developed initially for the San Joaquin Valley. However, Deltapine was turned down in a request to release the variety in the valley and the company then introduced it not only in the U.S., but the world.

Narrow-row ideal

"You could put a 10-inch stovepipe over Deltapine 90. AG3601 is more columnar than that. You can put a six-inch stovepipe over it. It does not have much branching," Scott said. It is ideal for the new narrow row and ultra-narrow cotton regimes as well as conventional row spacing. "It will not work in a skip row situation," Scott added.

Scott said Thorpe has tested it throughout the state and said it will do well in all areas of the state.

It will need a plant growth regulator to control vigor, guesses Scott. "I think it will do well on good ground as well as tough ground," he added.

"What we liked about it is its heat tolerance. Where other cottons would shed in our high heat, this variety did not," said Scott, who is getting orders from many growers wanting to plant 25 to 100 acres. Early tests at the Texas Tech University textile lab also gave the new variety high marks for acceptable micronaire, a rarity for Arizona cotton. "We sent hand picked samples from five fields and only one came back with a 5 micronaire. All the rest was in the premium range," said Scott.

It is a conventional, non-transgenic cotton, but Rick Lavis, executive vice president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association expects the Bt gene will be introduced into the variety. Eighty-three percent of the cotton varieties grown in the state last year were transgenic. That includes Roundup Ready.

"We have 19 modules ginned, and delinting is being done in Texas," said Scott. "We do not expect to have any carryover seed."

Organization first

AG3601 is not just another cotton variety, it represents more than that. It is the first time a cotton grower organization U.S. has owned a cotton variety.

The release of the variety comes in the wake of a long and heated debate across the U.S. Cotton Belt about commercial cotton variety development and declining yields and lint quality. It was the focal point of the 2001 Beltwide Cotton Conference, and it has spawned an effort to fund breeding research through Cotton Incorporated, the grower directed cotton research and production program. Arizona hopes to get funding from CI to further its fledgling effort.

Arizona’s efforts began long before the current debate got started. Most of the major seed companies have breeding and seed increase programs in Arizona. At one time the majority of the nations’ patented, improved variety seed was grown in Arizona because of the high seed quality produced in the dry desert climate.

However, Arizona producers have long felt they were being short changed, growing varieties for seed that were not well adapted for producing high yielding, quality lint in Arizona.

For more than 20 years, Scott has been one of the leaders in challenging seed companies to develop varieties more suited for Arizona. He cites declining new variety viability, increasing micronaire and falling yields.

The seed companies disagreed with Arizona producers. Deltapine invited producers to inspect their nurseries for varieties in search of one Arizona producers felt would be more suited for the Grand Canyon State. That effort proved futile, and Arizona producers decided to go on their own, funded with $140,000 raised via the research and protection council’s bale assessment.

Approached CPCSD

Arizona producers approached California Planting Cotton Seed Producers in California in an effort to team up with that grower-owned organization to produce varieties for Arizona. Scott said that proved too expensive for a struggling Arizona cotton industry. "However, we hope some time in the future as we become more financially viable that we can work with CPCSD," said Scott.

More than 150 producers showed up late last fall to see the new variety at a field day where Thorpe and Gilbert were developing varieties.

"That is certainly an indication of the need to develop new varieties more suited for Arizona and the support of producers to achieve that," said Lavis.

Arizona cotton producers have had their share of struggles over the past two decades, surviving onslaughts by pink bollworm, boll weevil, silverleaf whitefly and sticky cotton as well as a rap for poor quality lint.

Acreage dropped to less than 249,000 acres two years ago. It had been more than double that in the past. Last year it bounced back to 280,000 acres. Lavis and Scott believe it will drop to close to 200,000 acres this season. However, Scott said he has heard others predict it will be back in that 280,000 range.

With about 45 days to planting time, Scott said, "it’s anybody’s guess as to what it will be. A lot depends on the farm bill."

Variety lends hope

Regardless of what this year might hold, Arizona producers are hopeful their own cotton variety will help pull them back toward a more viable long term future.

"The Arizona cotton industry has almost been at death’s door in the past and may be now. However, it has always bounced back. It’s a very resilient group of producers who refuse to give up," said Lavis, who said the goal is to have a self-sufficient grower directed breeding and planting seed marketing organization in two to three years.

"We are grateful to Ron for working with us. He continues to work with Michael, allowing him to work in his nursery after Michael’s was lost to herbicide drift," said Scott. "We really appreciate that."