Besides the usual challenges faced by farmers, California’s Don Cameron had to contend with soils that wouldn’t grow crops when he started farming near Helm in 1981.

“We had fields where alfalfa and wheat wouldn’t grow” because the white soils were virtually devoid of nutrients and loaded with salts, says Cameron. Today, he plants not only those, but 24 other crops on 7,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley.

His farming career has been an ongoing initiative in reclamation, with Cameron using soil amendments like gypsum, soil sulfur and occasionally sulfuric acid and 35,000 tons of chicken litter annually from nearby poultry operations.

Cotton was Cameron’s moneymaker when he started farming there. “Cotton has bought and paid for a lot of farms on the West Side of the valley over the years,” he says. “Without cotton, we wouldn’t be here farming what we do today.”

Although cotton has struggled in recent years, Cameron believes it has a future in the San Joaquin Valley because of the demand for the high quality fiber produced there. Pima or extra long staple cotton has become the predominant variety after growers discovered it could yield with the traditional Acala varieties.
Another discovery that has helped Cameron and other California growers is the adoption of drip irrigation technology. Drip arrived in California in the mid-1970s. Now, virtually all new orchards and vineyards are established with some sort of micro-irrigation system.

About 80 percent of Cameron’s crops are drip-irrigated, which enables him to conserve water and reduce fertilizer applications. Both of the latter have become increasingly expensive in recent years.

He grows many organic crops, and is one of only two or three organic Pima growers in the U.S. He had 190 acres of organic Pima last year. Cotton is probably the most challenging crop to grow organically, he says, primarily because of the cost of mechanical weed control.