A series of wet, blustery storms began rolling into the West Coast in mid-December, putting an exclamation on one of the better cotton-producing seasons Arizona and California producers have seen in awhile.

The storms brought heavy rain to the valleys and mountain snow exactly at the right time. Virtually all of the 2002 California and Arizona crop was snug in bales or modules when the storms brought much needed rain to the valleys and snows to the mountains, giving hope that 2003 could be at least a good irrigation water availability year.

Producers are semi-basking in the glow of an excellent quality, high yielding 2002 crop harvested in virtually perfect weather. Unfortunately, continued low prices took some of the shine off an otherwise stellar year.

California and Arizona are projected to produce 1.8 million bales from 918,000 acres in 2002, one of the lowest acreage numbers in decades.

The latest USDA upland average estimate for California is 1,439 pounds per acre and will be a record, if realized. And, most experts predict it will be at least 1,400 pounds.

Arizona's projected average yield (1,241 pounds per acre) is 100 pounds higher than last season, and no one is disputing that either.

California's Pima average yield from a little more than 200,000 acres is projected to be 1,332 pounds per acre.

Excellent quality

Of perhaps greater importance than yield is that this is an excellent quality crop. The stickiness issue that almost put a permanent blot on the reputation of California cotton last season went away in 2002.

“It would be foolish to say we solved the problem of sticky cotton in one year, but we can say the industry stepped up and for the most part successfully addressed the issue,” said Williams.

“There is still some sticky cotton, but a heckuva lot less than last year,” added Williams.

At a recent San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board meeting, University of California agronomist Shane Ball said stickiness in SJVCB upland cotton trials was reduced by 46 percent over last year and 73 percent for Pima cotton from 2001 to 2002.

Nevertheless, Williams said that the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations would continue to emphasize the importance of clean cotton.

“Whitefly and aphids were present this year. We definitely had pressure this year,” said University of California Cotton Extension Specialist Bob Hutmacher. “However, it was obvious growers put more emphasis on controlling the insects that cause stickiness.”

“Hands down, this was a much better year than last year with the sticky cotton issue,” said Steve Carnes, director of field services for the Supima Association of America.

However, it was not a trouble free for SJV producers. There is a growing issue with seed coat fragments in the lint of at two cotton varieties. Hutmacher also said the problems of “early decline” in Acala reared its head again.

Potassium deficient

“It is very much like potassium deficiency. There was no obvious pathogen problem. Plants with good boll loads basically stopped dead in their tracks and quit growing in mid to late August. There was a lot of foliage where we saw this,” he said. “It was a fairly major problem in 2002 in quite a few locations, and it took away significant yield potential where it hit.”

Just as important as the lack of stickiness for later season Pima was a marked overall improvement in fiber quality. Overall, 98 percent of the Pima out of the Visalia classing office graded 2 or higher and 88 percent out of Phoenix graded 2 or higher.

The same fiber property improvements also were coming in for the SJV Acala/Upland crop. With almost 1.4 million bales classed through the USDA Visalia, Calif., classing office, average length, strength and uniformity were significantly improved over last season.

Arizona's quality nemesis, high micronaire, was also greatly reduced this year, according to Steve Husman, University of Arizona Extension specialist for field crops in Pinal and Pima counties.

“The latest report from the classing office had about 26 percent of the crop in the discount micronaire range. That compares to an average of about 40 percent,” he said.

Uniform fruit set

The reason for the sharp drop in discounted micronaire levels was ideal weather conditions that produced a uniform fruit set.

“University of Arizona Biometeorlogist Paul Brown said 2002 was one of the four best cotton growing seasons weather wise since 1985,” said Husman. “There were not as many heat stress periods and that allowed for more boll load uniformity.”

Producers in Arizona and California did not spend heavily for pest control. Husman characterized it as, “insect control budgets remained in tact.”

Fall harvest weather was excellent everywhere in the West, even in Northern California where Sacramento Valley producers grew about 20,000 acres this season. University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor Doug Munier said yields averaged about 2.3 bales.

“That is about the same as 2001, which was a very good year for us as well,” said Munier.

At the other end of California in the desert valleys along the Colorado River, Bob Bedwell, manager of Planters Ginning Co. in Brawley, Calif., said yields from the 8,400 acres in the Imperial Valley are all over the board, but averaged about 2.7 bales through his gin.

“Yields ranged from 1.5 bales to one grower who averaged 4.55 bales. The late cotton seemed to yield better overall,” he added.

John Colbert, ginner for Modern Ginning Co., Blythe, Calif., said the plant in the Palo Verde Valley handled cotton from about 18,400 acres in several California and Arizona desert valleys adjacent to the Colorado River.

“I think we will wind up averaging about 3 bales,” he said. “It was a light whitefly year and that helps. The majority of the crop is excellent quality.”

No sharp gains

Even with a good year and a federal farm bill in place, no one is predicting a sharp acreage increase for 2003. As a matter of fact, the only area that is likely to increase is Acala/Upland acreage in the San Joaquin.

Williams project that short staple acreage will increase from a record low of 475,000 acres this year to 650,000 next season. Hutmacher agrees. Pima acreage should drop, Williams added, from about 200,000 to 140,000 to 150,000 acres. He added that 50,000 to 100,000 acres of that 800,000-acre total projected hinges on water availability.

“There is a little more enthusiasm and optimism in the Arizona cotton industry than in the past couple of years, but I don't think you'll see an increase in acreage next year,” said Husman. For one reason, durum wheat prices are good and that will take cotton acreage and secondly there is little optimism that cotton prices will get much better or that costs will go down.

hcline@primediabusiness.com