Few San Joaquin Valley cotton producers are as passionate about agriculture as Fred Starrh.

His fervor is so unbridled, it is often misunderstood.

University of California Extension Cotton Specialist Bob Hutmacher says arguing a differing viewpoint than held by the 74-year-old Shafter, Calif., cotton grower “can make you think Fred hates your guts — and then when it all over he says, let's go get a hamburger.”

Starrh chuckled at that description, admitting that he can seem “overbearing” at times, but he makes no apology for his viewpoints or his profession as a San Joaquin Valley cotton farmer for more than a half century.

Starrh admits to more than a few “pretty heated discussions” over the years, but “I would hope that when they were over, we were still friends. Different viewpoints are what make this industry work. It's part of the process.”

Farming is Fred's lifestyle, and he will do whatever he can in any arena to protect and advance a way of life he cherishes.

Fred's father came to the valley in 1936 to grow cotton on a 30-acre cotton farm in Kern County. Fred's oldest son now lives on that farm. Later he partnered with his father and now Fred, his two sons Fred Jr. and Larry, daughters Carol Kroeker and her husband Jay and Ann Ashley farm 12,000 acres as a family partnership, Starrh and Starrh Cotton Growers, on the West Side of Kern County, Calif.

They grow about 6,000 acres of cotton with the rest of the farm in 2,100 acres of alfalfa, 280 acres of pistachios, 1,600 acres of almonds and 30 acres of carrots.

The Starrh family is this year's Farm Press/Cotton Foundation Far West High Cotton Award winner, nominated by their peers for decades of leadership in agriculture, the cotton industry and in production agriculture.

Fully involved

Involvement and the name Starrh are synonymous. It would take pages to list the organizations Fred and his sons have served both in California and nationally.

“I have always been aware of the fact that to have an impact you have to be involved the process,” said Fred.

Time away from a farm for industry involvement could take a toll between the turn rows, but that is not the case for Starrh and Starrh Cotton Growers. They are leaders there as well. That is why the Starrh Family was nominated and selected for this year's High Cotton award for the production region of California and Arizona.

Farming is challenging everywhere today, but no more so than in California where environmental restraints are the most onerous anywhere and resources like water and land are growing more scarce each day in a state of more than 32 million people rapidly on its way to 50 million within the next two decades.

The Starrhs are meeting challenges head on by:

  • Paving 33 miles of roads on their farm with an oil-sand compound to reduce dust.

  • Converting older diesel engine pumps to cleaner burning models to reduce pollution.

  • Installing drip irrigation exclusively for cotton production to reduce water use and to utilize well water as a replacement for increasingly tenuous surface water deliveries.

  • Utilizing soil moisture sensors to fine tune irrigation scheduling and maximizing water use.

  • Developing innovative, reduced tillage systems to cover more acreage with fewer passes.

In the High Cotton nomination package, the Starrh family was cited for “the level of commitment to Western cotton production, on-farm accomplishments and environmental stewardship the High Cotton award strives to recognize.

Established standards

“The Starrhs have established new standards for California from their farming practices and from their leadership roles in California agriculture,” said Bruce Roberts, University of California Cooperative Extension county director in Kings County who led the team which nominated the Starrhs.

The Starrhs have successfully maintained and even increased cotton yields while reducing inputs and meeting environmental standards unlike anywhere in the U.S. This year the Starrhs averaged 3 bales on upland varieties, including the ultra premium Acala from California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors,' Ultima, which is roller ginned and brings a 10 cents per pound premium over other saw-ginned Acalas. Their Pima yields averaged 2.7 bales.

Those yields were achieved using 32 to 34 inches of water. “We grew cotton on the drip-irrigated T-Tape with only 29 inches,” said Fred Sr.

Their other upland varieties were Nova and Sierra from CPCSD. Deltapine 340 and Phytogen 76 were the Pima varieties grown in 2003.

“The newer varieties we have today are more adaptable to less water use than what we used to grow,” said Starrh. Irrigation research has also resulted in ways to reduce water use as well.

“Cotton has gotten a bum rap as a big water user. Trees and many other crops in California use more water than cotton,” said Larry Starrh.

Fred Starrh is one of the most research-committed producers. He has played a key role in reshaping the USDA-ARS research team at the Shafter Research Center and is an unabashed supporter of genetically modified crops. The Starrh farm is a frequent site for UC and federal research projects.

Herbicide-resistant cottons have been a major breakthrough for California produces. “There is a new herbicide-resistant Ultima in the pipeline, and we are really looking forward to it. When you can take care of weeds without cultivation, it makes a life a whole lot simpler and reduces input costs,” he said.

However, high yields and reducing costs are only part of San Joaquin Valley cotton picture the Starrhs see for the survival of the California cotton industry. Quality has set the valley apart from other regions for decades, and the Starrhs have fought relentlessly to preserve that quality. They are one of the founders of the San Joaquin Valley Quality Cotton Growers formed in 1998. Larry currently is board chairman of this group of growers who have banded together to grow and market SJV Acala and Pima cotton to textile mills with a quality guarantee.

Air quality

Air quality has evolved as a huge challenge for California agriculture. Some contend it has replaced water as the No. 1 issue, and water for agriculture is just as scarce as it always has been.

With tractors cultivating and planting and engines pumping water in full view of the thousands of cars and trucks daily traveling the state's busy highways, Fred Starrh said agriculture is unfairly targeted as a major source of pollution.

“We have 60 irrigation engines on the 12,000 acres we farm yet people don't think about the 60 cars and trucks per acre in Bakersfield when people talk about air pollution in the valley,” said Larry Starrh.

Farmers contend the rapidly expanding population and the every increasing numbers of cars and trucks on San Joaquin Valley roads also are major factors in the valley's unwanted status as a non-attainment area for federal air quality standards. However, it is farming that seems to be the target of restrictive new air regulations.

“People look right past the thousands of cars and trucks on the valley roads to see our tractors and diesel engines running in the fields and think that we are somehow responsible for most of the pollution,” noted Fred Starrh.

The Starrhs know farmers are outnumbered in any urban-agricultural rock throwing contest over who is the chief polluter. “All we can do is tell our story about how we are doing our part in reducing pollution in the valley,” said Fred Starrh.

“We hate dust just as much if not more than anyone else, and that is why we have used an oil-sand material to pave 33 miles of roads on our farm,” he said. The oil-sand is readily available for the Starrhs because they farm near major oil production areas and the paving material is a by-product of the oil industry.

Not only is farm road dust a public relations nightmare, it is also bad for crops. Dust flares spider mites and it also damages equipment.

“It has been a gradual thing in paving the roads,” said Starrh. And, it started long before the air pollution debate heated up. “We tried to do three or four miles every year until we got it all paved, and we also go back over the roads again after a period of years.”

Paving a mile of dirt road removes a ton of PM10 particles from the air each year, according to John Beyer, state air quality coordinator for the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service. “We figure in a case like the Starrhs where they have paved roads along side fields, they have reduced dust by 83 percent. The only reason it is not 100 percent is because tractors use those roads to turn around after each field pass and travel. There is a small amount of dirt that accumulates on the road in the normal farming operations.

“The efforts made by the Starrhs and other farmers in reducing dust has been significant,” said Beyer.

Open to public

The Starrhs open themselves and their farming operation to scrutiny by being very public in their views and readily accessible. They will talk to anyone anywhere from the mass media to civic clubs. Many farmers feel uncomfortable in that role, fearful they'll be misquoted or theirs views misconstrued.

“We'll talk to anyone because a lot of times it advances the position of agriculture. I have no regrets about talking to people about what we do,” said Fred. “If it gives another perspective to people of what the reality is we deal with as farmers, it is worth the risk.”

Fred says agriculture's fate is in the hands of a non-agrarian society and the urban population is where farmers need to send their message that agriculture is an economically significant part of society that generates food, creates jobs and is represented by hard-working, honest people.

“There are people who want to take away production agriculture and the freedoms that go with being a farmer. They want to take my lifestyle, and the only way to counter that is to be a positive force anywhere I can,” said Fred Starrh.

Starrh will celebrate his 75th birthday this year. The family may want to have a special celebration, but Starrh will probably be too busy to stop for a party.

“I am not interested in quitting. I want to continue working at preserving the farming lifestyle for my children,” said Starrh. His latest passion is ensuring a water supply for the future of Starrh and Starrh Cotton Growers as a board member of the Kern County Water Agency.

“It has become readily apparent that if we are going to survive as a farm, we have to get involved with water. When you start having to lay out land like we did with 2,000 acres in 2001 because we did not have enough water, it becomes obvious you have to get involved,” said Starrh.

There has been no new surface water development for California agriculture in decades so farm water agencies and farmers have resorted to aquifer water storage, storing water underground during wet years for use during political or natural water shortages. The Kern County Water Agency now has 1 million acre feet of water in its water bank.

“Groundwater banking is the future of California agriculture. It is expensive, but necessary for our survival,” said Starrh.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com