California’s San Joaquin Valley cotton farmers typically look forward to enjoying Thanksgiving dinner because they know their crop has been gathered.

This year the turkey may give them indigestion.

“We will be picking cotton in California in December,” said Don Cameron, general manager of Terranova Ranch in Helm, Calif., as he watched irrigation water run in his Pima cotton on Sept. 9 this year, far later than he expected.

Like most other SJV producers, he had no choice but to irrigate very late.

“Even with Pima prices at $1.50 per pound, we had no choice but to push the cotton to make a late-set top crop to have any hope of making money this season on cotton,” said Cameron, the newly elected chairman of Supima.

“If the weather warms back up, the plants will suffer without water,” he said during an unseasonable cool spell in early September. “It scares me irrigating this late, but our ground is a little lighter and I took the chance. I would not irrigate Sept. 9, if I was on heavy ground.”

Virtually all California crops are late this year due to a prolonged, wet and cold spring. A relatively mild summer did not provide any catch-up weather. “Our tomatoes are late just like our grapes and prunes,” said Cameron.

Cotton is the longest season crop grown in the Central Valley. There are still 60 days left to make a crop.

“Cotton has the most exposure from this year,” lamented Cameron. “We know we will be picking when it’s cold. We just hope it is not rainy and foggy in November and December.”

This late season is particularly bittersweet for cotton producers because demand for Pima and Acala is at levels not seen in several years. Roller-ginned Acala cotton recently moved into the 90 cents to $1 range.

Thirty-eight percent of the 2010 Pima crop has already been sold at excellent price levels.

This has been a comeback year for California cotton after falling last season to the lowest statewide acreage since the 1920s — just under 200,000 acres. Strong cotton prices as a result of growing demand and reduced stocks had many predicting 2010 SJV cotton acreage would reach 350,000 acres.

After a miserable spring, which many veteran producers called the “worst ever,” the final acreage came in at about 303,000 acres, said Earl Williams, president of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association.

“I was doubtful we would make 300,000 after the very poor start we had,” said Williams. Of the final total, 170,000 are Pima, the rest Acala/Upland.

USDA/NASS is projecting yields to be 1,174 pounds for Pima. The Acala/Upland average is forecast to average just over 3 bales.

Williams calls those yield estimates “optimistic.

“We have a long way to go before this crop is picked. We have a higher percentage than normal top crop to be made,” said Williams, who is estimating Pima yields from 2 to 2.25 bales and Upland/Acala from 2.5 to 2.75 bales.

Fortunately, there is sufficient cotton harvesting equipment to gather this crop quickly when it is ready, said Williams.

“The biggest concern about this late crop is that Pima has to be second picked and that could be a big problem this season. I have never seen less than a quarter-bale from second-picked Pima. With this top crop we are seeing, second picking could be as much as a half bale this year. That is a lot of cotton.”

Heavy rain and fog is never good for open cotton. It can be particularly costly for Pima cotton. Discounts for Pima cotton in the past have been as much as 50 percent between high grades and low grades. Currently, there are 30 cents to 50 cents per pound discounts between Pima grades 1, 2 and 3 and grades 4 and 5.