California can grow more high quality cotton than anywhere else in the U.S. yet there are those who believe without a dramatic shift upward in prices, upland cotton will soon be relegated to minor crop status in the state's diversified agricultural scheme.

Excluding Pima cotton, California's short staple acreage could tumble to about 600,000 acres this season. Its historical base is about 1.5 million. Pima cotton, which has proven to be an economic godsend to San Joaquin Valley's cotton growers over the past decade, is expected to be planted on about 230,000 acres this season.

Being the best at growing cotton is no longer the route to economic success, according to Earl Williams, president and CEO California Cotton Growers Association.

“Managing risk is the name of the game today,” Williams told the annual meeting of the association recently. Better understanding the markets cotton growers are forced to participate in and using tools to maximize income is the key to survival.

To that end, Williams said the association would host a risk management seminar this spring for growers to learn more about managing risks.

The tough talking association executive pledged that there “is and will be a future for the California cotton industry.”

Williams ignited a firestorm last year at the association's annual meeting when he said it was time agriculture stop compromising politically and be aggressive in its political efforts. He calls it the “re-introduction” of agricultural into Sacramento politics.

His talk turned into a big prize cakewalk. Williams and others of the same ilk continue basking in one of California's agriculture's biggest victories, an “unbelievable” $150 million agricultural tax break as part of last year's state budget. It was forged by a coalition of agricultural groups who crossed over the partisan aisle to accomplish its goal and “agriculture walked away with the big prize — a huge benefit for agriculture.”

As big as that victory was, Williams said the challenges facing cotton and California agriculture are far from conquered.

‘Roller coaster ride’

“The industry is still on a roller coaster ride” of economic uncertainty.

He challenges his membership that even in the dark times of today, “this is no time to cut back — it is a time to step it up — not step it down.”

The volunteer cotton growers and ginners associations enjoy unprecedented support; 100 percent of all gins in the state and 99 percent of California growers are members. This support Williams said puts the cotton industry “in the political game.

“Survival is about being in the game, and we are in the game prepared,” said Williams. That means forming coalitions with politicians outside agricultural areas.

There have been successes other than the tax break. The association was successful in raising the weight limit for module haulers on state highways by 6,000 pounds and is working to extend that exemption to federal highways.

Fugitive dust

Under the guidance of the association's vice president, Roger Isom, proposed fugitive dust standard were made more palatable to farmers.

After two years of negotiations, fugitive dust standards for agriculture apply only to unpaved roads, unpaved equipment yards and storage bulk material yards. The regulations do not affect field activities such as disking or land leveling and agricultural operations have been exempted from the mud/dirt track-out requirements.

To trigger control requirements on those unpaved roads and equipment yards, vehicle activity must exceed 75 vehicle trips per day, not including “implements of husbandry.”

However, there are two major challenges ahead: crop insurance and the threat of devastating strains of fusarium wilt invading California cotton acreage.

After 18 months of work, California cotton growers still do not have a viable federal crop insurance program. Williams charged that the USDA and its Risk Management Agency have “no burning desire” to develop an insurance program suitable for high value, high production agriculture.

“We are not giving up on the issue. We will have an insurance program that makes sense for the California cotton industry and lending institutions,” he said.

Williams also is disappointed the association has not been able to stop the import of cottonseed from Australia. He contends it poses a threat of infecting California cotton with two virulent, uncontrollable races of fusarium wilt found in Australia.

More than 320,000 tons are imported into California annually for use as dairy rations because there is not enough produced in California to meet the demand.

Matter of time

Williams acknowledged that the two races have not been found in shipments so far, but he believes it is only a matter of time until they show up because sampling has detected other fusarium strains in the fuzzy seed.

Williams charges that methyl bromide fumigation is not killing diseases as importers, California Department of Food and Agriculture USDA and APHIS contend because fusarium races are being uncovered in the seed.

“Stay tuned on this one,” said Williams. “The treatments are not effective in controlling fusarium.” The regulating agencies contend controls are working because the strains have not been discovered so far and seed has been coming into California for several years.

Williams challenged those agencies to “do what is right” and quarantine imported seed from cotton producing areas.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com