California acreage forecast too low; Arizona on target The National Cotton Council's (NCC) annual January cotton acreage planting intentions missed the mark in California by as much as 70,000 acres, but was accurate for Arizona, according to producers and other industry leaders in the two highest yielding U.S. Cotton Belt states.

The NCC survey is the season's first, and it almost always stirs debate after it is released at the National Cotton Council's annual meeting. The harshest criticism this season was the size of its sample, only 8 percent of U.S. producers.

Nevertheless, Arizonans figure the 281,000 acres of Upland and 8,000 of Extra Long Staple Pima is probably right for their state at this time of year. That could change based on the availability and cost of energy.

However, the California estimate of 731,000 acres of upland, down from the 775,000 last year is off the mark, perhaps as much as 10 percent over the NCC estimate, according to Westerners.

California's Extra Long Staple Pima acreage is estimated to jump 30 percent to 189,000 from last season's 145,000, according to the NCC survey. Even as sizable as that is, most view it as too low. There is general agreement it will hit 200,000. Some predict 250,000. Others say as much as 300,000.

"If we plant 250,000 acres of Pima this year, we'll be trading it for the next two years," said Jarral Nepper of Calcot, Bakersfield, Calif.

Planting shift assured A significant shift from upland to Pima in the San Joaquin Valley is a certainty with $1 forward contract prices for the 2001 crop and an $84-cent loan rate. The shift to Pima out of upland accounts for part of the NCC's projected 5.7 percent drop in statewide upland acreage.

Bill Van Skike, president of California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors (CPCSD) expects SJV overall acreage to be up 10 percent from the 870,000 last year.

"In fairness to the council's acreage estimate, the survey was taken before the recent rains. When the survey was conducted, it looked like we were not going to get much water," said Van Skike. "It has rained in the valley and snowed in the mountains since the survey was taken, giving growers hope water allocations will increase from earlier projections."

A sizable part of the spread between the NCC upland acreage and the 800,000 upland acres most Westerners predict is cotton acreage in Southern California and the Sacramento Valley, both of which will be up sharply.

The Sacramento Valley's 18,000 acres in 2000 will likely go to 25,000 this season. Northern California farmers have been hit hard by the drops in processing tomato and sugar beet acreages. Cotton is one of the few summer crop alternatives left, and it yielded relatively well last season.

Southern California cotton yielded well last year, according to Neeper. "Growers in the Blythe area had a good year last season, and we understand acreage in the Imperial Valley may double this season based on a good year last year. We could see a sizable increase in both valleys."

Bob Bedwell manager of Planters Ginning Co. in Brawley projects Imperial Valley acreage will more than double to at least to 12,000 acres from the 5,800 last season. Some 5,000 of that will be ultra-narrow-row cotton from a Kings County, Calif., grower who has leased land in the valley for stripper harvested, 15-inch row cotton. He has been successful with the system in the Corcoran area and is taking the concept to the Southern California desert.

"We had a pretty good year last season, averaging 2.93 bales per acre," said Bedwell. "I estimate our regular growers will increase acreage to about 7,000 acres."

Lloyd Colbert, manager of Modern Gin Co., Blythe, Calif., said his gin average was 3.5 bales per acre from about 25,000 acres of cotton last season. About 15,000 of that was in the Palo Verde Valley in Riverside County, Calif. He also gins cotton from the Parker area in Arizona.

Blythe, Calif., producer Bob Hull said that acreage in the Palo Verde could go up 1,000 acres this season, but he does not believe it will be much more than that.

Production costs Increasing production costs continue to hang over any planting intentions this early in the game. Diesel fuel, propane and natural gas and fertilizers made from natural gas are the more obvious sources of cost increases. However, the California electricity crisis is hanging over both states, but from two perspectives.

One is that the skyrocketing cost of electricity will dramatically impact the cost of electricity growers or their irrigation districts buy on the open market to run irrigation pumps. They will be competing with the California state government that is buying power at almost any cost to keep the lights on in the nation's most populous state.

"We had to buy some power for our little irrigation district the other day, and it was out of sight," said Bruce Heiden, Buckeye, Ariz., cotton producer. "We cannot afford to pay what they are asking for electricity on the open market."

On the other hand, growers or irrigation districts with long term, low-cost electricity contracts or district-generated electricity to sell may opt to sell watts to power-short utilities rather than use it themselves.

There may be more profit in selling than farming.

"There are a lot of rural electric districts in Arizona who may opt to sell power" and use the profits to pay farmers for not farming, said Larry Jarnagin who farms in Maricopa County, Ariz.

"In the economic climate agriculture is in, it may make a lot more sense to sell the electricity," said Jarnagin.

This same option would be available to growers and irrigation districts in California.