Mel Amarel’s business card carries no title.
He needs a jumbo card to list hats he wears out of North Valley Gin on the outskirts of Sutter, Calif.
Amarel keeps busy in the northern reaches of the Cotton Belt:
• Managing the Valley’s lone cotton gin
• Farming 600 acres
• Overseeing the custom harvest of another 1,000 acres
• Helping many of the 20 Northern California cotton growers market their crops
• Negotiating planting seed contracts.
Doug Munier, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Glen County, said Amarel also spends a lot of time teaching new growers the finer points of growing cotton.
“Mel does a good job for his growers. He understands cotton,” said Munier, who was a farm advisor in Kern County before moving north 15 years ago, taking with him years of cotton experience from the southern San Joaquin Valley.
There were just 1,000 acres harvested in 1995 when cotton returned to the Valley after a commercial absence of more than 70 years. It peaked at more than 22,000 in 2001. Many thought it had the potential to reach 100,000 acres or more in the northern Valley.
However, like the rest of the U.S. Cotton Belt, the fiber crop fell on hard times. Acreage began to decline, a casualty of low prices and competition from more profitable crops. It fell to its lowest level in the Sacramento Valley last year, when only 2,250 acres were planted.
And like the rest of the U.S., cotton has rebounded there this season, more than doubling last year’s acreage.
North Valley Gin is locally owned by Amarel and his partners. A larger gin once operated in the Valley.
When the acreage decline started, a trio of managers representing the larger gin took Amarel to lunch and offered to buy him out. He offered to buy them out. They responded they would run Amarel and North Valley out of business.
“I told them they wouldn’t drive me out of business. They said, ‘why?’ and I said because there are three of you doing what I do alone, and besides you are buying lunch,” he laughs.
The other gin closed three years ago.
There are almost 5,000 acres in Glenn, Colusa and Sutter counties this year. Amarel expects to gin 14,000 to 15,000 bales this fall. Yields may be off from last year’s 3.3 gin average, but he is confident his 20 growers can bring in a good crop. Many are seasoned cotton producers, dating back more than 15 years as north country cotton growers. Four are new cotton producers this year.
Modern day cotton in the Valley actually dates to 1976. That is when the late Buel Mouser, then the Chico State University farm manager and later school ag professor, started growing cotton on the school farm. When he retired, he wrote a research paper detailing what he had learned about growing cotton in the Sacramento Valley. His report sparked grower interest in cotton as an alternative crop. The first farmer crop was grown in the mid 1990s.
It was a rough start, primarily because of 2,4D drift issues from rice to cotton. Cotton is very susceptible to 2,4D aerial drift and rice growers resented the introduction of the crop. A second concern was the feared spread of verticillium wilt from cotton to olives. Cotton is still banned from certain areas of the Valley because of that issue, even though olives and cotton have long co-existed side-by-side in the San Joaquin Valley, and research has shown cotton poses no threat to NorCal olives.
Survival of cotton in the Sacramento Valley is a surprise to many with such small acreage and one gin. “I am not really surprised cotton’s still here. It may be a little more difficult to grow than some other crops. The season is longer than other North Valley crops.
“However, the revenue has been there year after year. There have been ups and downs, but cotton has been fairly consistent through it all,” he says.
SJV Acalas and even Pimas have been tried in the north, but it has been uplands that have been consistent. “No one wants to pick cotton at Christmas time,” he laughs.
The 2010 rebound has come with 80-cent cotton and lucrative seed contracts Amarel has negotiated for his growers the past few years.
Cotton competes well economically this year with sunflower, safflower and corn. It also uses less water than corn.
“In the lighter ground in the Willows area, cotton takes five to six irrigations. When you start looking at corn at $7.50 a hundredweight and 10 to 12 irrigations, cotton matches up well,” he says.
Amarel has grown the seed contracts each season. Now the gin is a 100 percent seed saving gin set up to segregate varieties. He figures the gin’s planting seed production will be enough to seed about 500,000 acres of cotton.
“We have never lost a seed crop – knock on wood – even after last year when we got 2.5 inches on the crop. After the rain, the wind blew like crazy and it dried things out by the time we could get back in to pick the crop,” he says.
Amarel said NorCal planting seed is in demand. “I have talked to farmers from Mississippi and they swear our seed has more vigor,” he bragged.
Last year 100 percent of the gin’s production went to Bayer for FiberMax and Stoneville varieties planting seed. He is still seed saving for Bayer, but Delta and Pine Land Co. contracted for seed production this season as well.
The seed companies allow Amarel and the growers to select varieties. They go with short and mid season varieties to make sure they can make a crop. Companies have sponsored variety trials with Munier. All varieties are transgenic.
“One 20-acre field last year went 4.6 bales. I sent the grower a season-ending check — less ginning costs, hauling and assessments. He called me and said he had not cashed it, wondering if I had made a mistake. I told him no — that I checked it three times myself. It was for $350 per acre after costs.”
Amarel and Munier say this year’s NorCal crop is like everywhere else in California.
“We are at least two and a half, maybe three weeks behind,” Amarel estimates. In late June, fields ranged from only four to nine leaf in age.
Munier has heard reports growers are going to hold off on expenses, concerned that the late season will not produce a big crop to pay back expenses. Amarel has not heard that.
“My guys are all pushing the crop from what I hear. Not one is shorting fertilizer. They are trying to get all they can out of the crop,” he said.
The only thing growers may do is eliminate the last irrigation to get the crop ready earlier to miss bad weather at harvest.
“My concern is immatures. If you kill the crop too early, you run the risk of a high percentage of immature seed,” and seed companies can refuse to take it.
Like in the San Joaquin Valley, lygus can be a problem, generally coming out of safflower. “Safflower will hold the lygus until it dries out. When it does, it will bury the cotton if you are not careful. I have actually sprayed a neighbor’s lygus to keep it out of my cotton.”
Amarel says growers will put money into lygus control, if there are not a lot of other problems. He said they use a generic lambda-cyhalothrin pyrethroid, tank mixing it with the plant growth regulator Pix. At full bloom, a miticide will usually be applied along with a lygus treatment.
Bollgard II has taken worms out of the picture. It controls loopers and armyworms, both occasional problems.
With the cotton barely out of the ground, Amarel is already gearing up for a quick harvest. All his module haulers will be ready to roll, including two he considers spares. “Once harvest starts, we are leaving nothing in the field. If it rains, it is better off in the gin yard.” His longest haul is 90 miles round trip.
There are pickers mothballed from past years. He hopes to convince their owner/growers to help with harvest and earn some extra money.
Amarel owns three six-row pickers to gather his 600 acres and 1,000 more for other growers. He figures one machine can cover 30 acres per day in perfect conditions. He uses his machines to gather crops for small growers, especially new ones.
“You cannot expect a new grower to invest in a picker for a new crop,” he says.
NorCal cotton is grown in 30-inch rows.
Ninety percent of NVG’s bales are marketed through Calcot. Jess Smith and Sons out of Bakersfield also has been active in marketing NVG cotton. Amarel said he averaged 76 cents per pound last year through the Calcot call pool.
Amarel said the gin was moved to Sutter from Firebaugh, Calif., on the West Side of the San Joaquin. It can comfortably handle the 5,000 acres this year and up to 7,000 acres. He could go up to 10,000 acres with modifications to the gin, but that would max it out. He estimates it would take 15,000 acres of sustained production to warrant another gin. He does not expect the acreage to top 7,000 any year soon.
Cotton may not have rocketed to the heights some expected in Northern California, but the area has found a nice niche in seed production.