The curtain will go up March 10 on the San Joaquin Valley cotton planting season.

The mandatory pink bollworm host-free period ends then and what begins will be an extraordinary cotton season.

Most experts believe 450,000 acres of cotton will be seeded to Pima and Acala/upland cottons in the six-county cotton growing region that once boasted 1.5 million acres of cotton. It could reach 500,000 this season, but it is not likely.

What makes this season astonishing is the fact that the value of the cotton from a half million acres will likely equal the cash generated from the 1.5 million acres harvested in the mid 1980s. The 2011 SJV cotton crop could generate farm income of more than $1 billion, just like it did 30 years ago.

Pima prices nearing $3 per pound and Acala at $2 would seemingly warrant a cotton planting frenzy. Some individual farmers will significantly expand their acreage this year over last. However, others will maintain the same acreage amount as last season, with some growers possibly reducing cotton acreage.

Once the economic king of the valley, cotton now competes economically with many other crops. Even at historically high prices, crops like low input wheat can generate income equal to cotton with far less inputs for some producers. Cotton’s biggest competitor for acreage on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley over the past decade has been cannery-contracted processing tomatoes.

Growers do not want to give up their tomato contracts, even though cotton prices are high and tomato prices are expected to be somewhat lower than last season. Steadily increasing tomato yields with improved management practices and drip irrigation can boost tonnage and cut costs to offset a year of lower prices. California produces more than 95 percent of the U. S. processing tomatoes and if canneries want to tomatoes for their customers, they must contract with California growers.

Cotton will likely take acreage from alfalfa this season, although record prices are projected for 2011 alfalfa. Those record prices will be tempered by a dairy industry continuing to struggle with relatively low prices and significantly higher feed costs.

Ironically, some dairymen who have sold their herds will grow cotton on former forage ground. Some operating dairies are growing cash crops on ground once reserved exclusively for dairy feed crops in an effort to generate cash to offset milk losses.