A week after the magical April 15th planting date for San Joaquin Valley Pima cotton, Jean Errotabere's planting seed for 2,000 acres of ELS cotton sat tightly wrapped on pallets in his farm shop near Riverdale, Calif.
His planters were protected from the elements with module covers in the equipment yard. “People see my planters covered and ask me if they are for sale,” laughed Errotabere, who a partner in his family's Errotabere Ranches.
He did not plan to uncover his planter or unwrap seed bags of seed for another couple of days. He can plant his acreage in four or five days, but some would contend that that is getting precariously close to May 1. For Pima, that may be too late to get a decent yield.
However, planting in cold soils when the five-day heat unit accumulation forecast is far less than 20 makes even less sense to Errotabere.
“I have nursed sick cotton fields planted too early under less than ideal conditions, and I don't want to do it again,” said Errotabere, who has never replanted a Pima field due to seedling disease or cold injury in the decade he and his family have been ELS producers on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.
“We planted a hailed out field on April 28 last year, and it went 3.4 bales,” said the young producer. “Our ranch Pima average is 3.4 bales,” and that includes 1998 when cold May and June months resulted in a year average of only 2.5-bales.
The Errotaberes have been among the most successful Pima producers since ELS was introduced in the valley a little over 10 years ago. Jean whiled away his time this season waiting for better planting weather accepting invitations to look at fields planted earlier, but suffering the effects of an early April cool, wet spell.
There has been considerable replanting in some areas.
In early March, SJV Pima acreage estimates were climbing in direct proportion to the plummeting of the New York Futures Market. With an 82-cent government Pima loan and 45-cent upland futures, the acreage estimates of with 300,000 acres were plentiful. That is more than double the 145,000 of last year.
Earl Williams, president of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association (CCGGA), was calling his 300,000-acre estimate “rambunctious” after the April cold spell. Others were agreeing it would not reach that level.
“I think it may be less than 200,000 acres…maybe 210,000,” predicted Errotabere. “We'll have a better idea on May 15.”
That's when Western Farm Press, The Supima Association, the University of California and CCGGA sponsors the fourth annual Pima Production Summit at the Visalia Convention Center.
Errotabere will among a line up of speakers who will offer their insight into this year's SJV Pima crop at the Visalia event. The Fresno County, Calif., producers will be joined by Corcoran, Calif., producer Mark Grewal from J.G. Boswell and at least two Pima cotton breeders, Joel Mahill of Phytogen and Jim Olvey, who has developed several of the newer Pimas marketed by Delta and Pine Land Co., on a panel looking at a wide range of subjects from new varieties to the condition of this year's crop to date. They'll also examine the future for herbicide-resistant Pimas, something growers would welcome to reduce weed control costs.
The international and domestic market outlook and an acreage projection will come from Jarral Neeper, assistant vice president of Calcot's Call Pool operations and economics. He will provide an up-to-date look at the SJV acreage and its impact on the world ELS market.
However, even more unsettling than the Pima acreage and the ELS market outlook is the energy crisis facing California cotton producers. One of the most recognized experts on the energy crisis and its impact on California agriculture is Roger A. Isom, vice president and director of Technical Services for CCGGA. Isom on May 15 will provide the latest projections on the economic impact of California's energy crisis on this year cotton growing and ginning seasons.
Others scheduled to speak include:
— University of California Extension Cotton Specialist Bob Hutmacher and UC Regional IPM Advisor Pete Goodell.
— Matt Laughlin and Steve Carnes of the Supima Association reporting on the marketing and Pima cotton seed research projects.
Lunch will be provided and continuing education credit offered. A registration form is offered above.
This year's SJV Pima crop is critically important economically since it is one of the few crops offering a positive net return to SJV producers. With a two-week warm weather span beginning about March 15, growers were eager to get the longer season Pima in the ground.
Lowell Zelinski, vice president of California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors (CPCSD), estimated 60 percent of the Pima was in the ground when the cool spell hit.
Replanting posed a dilemma as May 1 approached.
“What makes planting and replanting Pima so complex this year is the price. Pima is basically double the current upland price,” said Zelinski.
“Does that mean growers will still plant Pima late — much later than normal with the prospects of making the same amount of money on half a Pima crop as they would on a full upland crop?” he questioned.
The economics of the SJV cotton industry is brought into even sharper focus when Zelinski offers an estimate of perhaps less than 600,000 acres of non-Pima cotton varieties. That includes Acalas and the so-called “California Uplands.”
“I don't think you'll see more than 75,000 acres of uplands and 525,000 acres of Acalas,” he said. California has an upland history of as many as 1.2 million acres.
“It does not make any sense to plant Acalas or uplands when futures prices are at 30-year lows,” said Williams.
“There is no doubt there will be big (financial) help coming out of Washington, but no one knows how much or when. There is no doubt it will be more help than in the past — the question is how much more,” said Williams.
The spread between current prices and profitability for Acalas and Uplands is at least 30 cents per pound, and that is a significant amount of government help.
That brings it all back to Pima where experienced growers like Errotabere are willing to gamble on late-planted Pima.
“May and June really tell the Pima story each year. When the heat units are there in those two months, a good Pima crop can be made,” said Errotabere. That did not happen in 1998.
“We had a relatively hot summer that year, but we lost all of May and 10 days into June and could not make up for lost time,” Errotabere.
Most producers contend Pima is a tougher seed out of the ground and that is why they'll gamble a little more in planting Pima in less than ideal conditions. Regardless, Errotabere says “when soil temperatures are less than 58 degrees and the five-day heat unit forecast is not good, the risk is not worth it — I don't care what the calendar says.
“I want to plant only one time,” he said.
Errotabere and others contend the early 300,000-acre Pima estimates included many first-time Pima growers encouraged by their bankers. Jumping into Pima for the first time when net income is essential for survival invites disaster.
“There is a learning curve with Pima. It took us several seasons to get comfortable with what we were doing,” said Errotabere.
If growers do not get their Pima in by May 1, they may opt out of cotton altogether because of the low upland prices.