California’s cotton comeback is in a Catch-22 quandary.

As the economic outlook for the long-time San Joaquin Valley crop staple improves, the capability to continue to expand cotton acreage in the future is being threatened by an insidious soil fungus, Fusarium Race 4.

This particular race has been around awhile, but with the expanded cotton acreage this season it has been found in far more areas than ever before. It has been identified in all six SJV cotton-producing counties in more than 200 total locations.

Although not as menacing elsewhere, it also poses a threat to the rest of the U.S Cotton Belt and could have an impact on California as a source of premium cotton planting seed for varieties to be sold throughout the U.S. and the world. However, other areas of the U.S. Cotton Belt could have their own soil-borne Fusarium nightmares just like Australia, where the first Race 4 was found.

Fusarium Race 4 FOV was first identified in California in the 1990s in isolated areas. It is believed to have been introduced into the valley on infected planting seed. Unlike other Fusarium races, Race 4 does not need to be vectored by nematodes to infect plants. It has been found in all soil types. It cannot be eradicated. Once it is in the soil, it does not go away. A widely infected field cannot produce cotton ever again.

It is spread by Race 4 contaminated soil movement, plant debris and seed. It only kills cotton, but it can live and spread in the soils where crops other than cotton are grown without affecting those other crops. When cotton is planted to a field, even after years or more of no cotton, the fiber crop can be devastated.

That is what happened this year when California’s cotton acreage took a sharp jump to 450,000 acres from a historical low point of less than 300,000 acres three years ago.

California cotton industry leaders have initiated an aggressive information and hopefully an expanded research effort to contain the spread of Fusarium Race 4.

Los Banos, Calif., cotton producer and California Cotton Growers Association Chairman Cannon Michael said with the declining cotton acreage since 2004, Race 4 was “something growers ignored and did not realize the extent of the problem until this year. With expanded acreage, it has popped up everywhere. It is no longer localized in just a few fields.”

Fellow growers Bill Stone in Kings County and Mark Watte in Tulare County, along with others, have been “very vocal about this and are adamant about an educational program and continued research program to bring Race 4 more to the forefront,” said Michael. ”Unfortunately, there are still some growers who do not understand what we are up against.

“Industry leaders and seed companies are also very involved in our efforts,” Michael said.

“Race 4 is a deadly early-season disease,” said Michael.