A funny thing happened to some producers in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield, Calif., on their way to planting the 2006 cotton crop. Somehow they managed to plant about twice as much Pima cotton as they had originally planned.

Fortunately, the owners of the Kern Delta-Weedpatch Cotton Ginning Co. were prepared, having voted to convert a portion of their facility, which is located just south of Bakersfield, to roller ginning at their annual meeting last winter.

“Our growers started realizing that not as much Pima was being planted in the northern part of the (San Joaquin) Valley as had been anticipated because of the weather,” said David A. Alderete, the Kern Delta Gin manager. “We were expecting 3,000 acres of Pima and wound up with 6,000 acres.”

The potential for more acres of Pima wasn’t the only reason the 30 Kern County growers who make up the gin’s membership decided to convert a portion of the gin. The premium some buyers are offering for roller-ginned Acala cotton also figured into their plans.

And it didn’t hurt that Kern Delta-Weedpatch Gin had some features that lended themselves to helping the economics of the conversion.

Prices approaching $1.25 a pound have been pushing more California acres to Pima in recent years. Last spring, California producers almost planted as much Pima (290,000 acres) as upland (310,000 acres) for the first time, according to USDA’s August 1 Crop Production Report.

But growers who have stayed with upland have also found that Calcot Ltd., and other buyers will pay them a seven to 10-cent per pound premium for roller-ginned Acala when adequate supplies of Pima weren’t available.

Phillip Cerro, who farms with his brothers southwest of Bakersfield, was one of those who wound up with more Pima cotton than had been anticipated.

“On 1,425 acres, we had intended to plant 800 acres of Pima and 600 acres of Acala,” he said. “But that went out the window when we saw what was happening north of us. We now have 1,000 acres of Pima and 425 acres of Acala.

Cerro said farmers in the Bear Mountain Road area southwest of Bakersfield were getting rain during the normal planting period in March and early April. “But, fortunately for us, the rains were warm, and we were able to plant sooner than farmers to the north of us could.”

Like the Cerro Brothers, Greg Palla’s family operation, also located near Bakersfield, is in its third year of growing Pima. Both are members of the board of directors at Kern Delta-Weedpatch Gin who strongly supported the plans to add roller ginning to its capabilities.

“The last 10 years we’ve seen a rather drastic change in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Palla, who also represents California cotton growers on the American Cotton Producers, the producer arm of the National Cotton Council.

“We’re seeing more urban pressure, limits on water supplies and shifts to permanent crops such as almonds and to forage crops to service the increasing number of dairies in the Valley,” he noted. “We’ve gone from cotton being the No. 1 crop to No. 7 or 8. Pima has given growers a renewed sense of optimism.”

Palla said Kern Delta’s board had been negotiating with two other ginning companies that would have provided roller ginning for Kern Delta growers at other facilities. But those arrangements didn’t pan out.

“It became very important to a number of us to have an option for ginning extra long staple cotton for the future,” he said. “We were also concerned that if we had members who were interested in Pima – and we didn’t have the facilities – they might take it to another gin.”

When Kern Delta opened in the early 1980s, it was a much bigger gin than its operations in recent years. Its five Lummus 158 saw ginning stands were capable of processing a total of about 60 bales of cotton an hour. The original owners also installed two separate lines of pre-cleaning equipment so the operators to increase the flow of cotton into the gin.

As cotton acres have dwindled in the Bakersfield area, growers have run fewer bales of upland cotton through the facility in recent years.

After the members decided to make the conversion at their annual meeting last December, Alderete; Moses Adams, the gin superintendent; and their staff began the process of removing two of the L-158 ginning stands and replacing them with six Lummus roller ginning stands. (Saw gin stands are much wider than those for roller gins.)

“With the remaining saw ginning stands, we believe we can process 18 to 20 bales of upland cotton per hour,” says Alderete. “On the roller stands – and all have the high speed conversion equipment – if we can gin 18 to 20 bales per hour, we’ll be happy.”

Until recently, roller-ginning stands could only process about a bale-per-hour. But the USDA Ginning Laboratory at Mesilla Park, N.M., has developed a conversion kit that allows roller ginners to increase the ginning speed four-fold.

“There are some pretty phenomenal expectations of this new roller stand,” said Earl Williams, president of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association. “Unfortunately not enough cotton was run through the stand to answer some important questions, like the life of the rolls. We should have some answers after this fall.”

Williams, a speaker at the Pima Production Summit in Visalia last May, said he expects that about a dozen of the 373 roller gin stands in the 22 cotton gins expected to open this fall will be high-speed versions developed in Mesilla Park. He also said he anticipates an increase of 25 roller gin stands in the San Joaquin Valley.

With the dual pre-cleaning systems in place at Kern Delta, Alderete believes Kern Delta can run both the saw ginning systems and the roller ginning systems at the same time. “We’ll know whether we can do that before long,” he added.

Not having to install additional cleaning equipment helped make the conversion more economical than it could have been. Kern Delta employees will also be able to use the existing power supply to run the new gin stands since it was designed for a bigger operation.

“The gin originally was designed for 5,000 horsepower,” said Alderete. “Over the years, we reduced the power demand to 3,500 hp by eliminating fans that weren’t being used. Now we’re hooking them back up and not having to install new lines into the gin.”

With those kinds of savings, Kern Delta will probably spend less than $1 million on the conversion.

But the demand for roller-ginned Acala remains a prime consideration in the conversion.

“There’s been a good market for roller-ginned Acala,” said Palla. “It’s predicated on higher Pima prices, but the market is definitely there.”

Growers attending the Pima Summit in Visalia heard marketing analysts say the demand for Pima cotton shows little sign of weakening in the near future, another indication that the 7- to 10-cent premium for roller-ginned Acala may continue, says Mark Borba, president of Borba Farms in Riverdale, Calif.

The drought in Texas could also be a factor.

“In the past, if Acala wasn’t available, the mills would go to Australia,” says Borba. “Now they’re more likely to go to the FiberMax varieties in Texas. They’re not as long or as strong, but they’re OK. With the Texas crop so hammered by drought this year, Acala, especially roller-ginned Acala, will be in bigger demand.”

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