Roadside snowfall is heavier this fall in the San Joaquin Valley than it has been in several years, and it is beautiful.
Tufts of cotton (snow) lining valley highways and rural roads have been a fall decoration in the valley for almost a century. At one time they actually looked like roadside snow banks. That’s when growers harvested more than 1 million acres of cotton each year.
Like a mountain snow bank melting in the spring sun, cotton acreage has declined dramatically over the past decade. However, cotton acreage has rebounded of late and the inevitable 'snow' escaping cotton module haulers along the roads is a heart-warming sight for this old ag journalist. I have probably written more articles about cotton than any other crop in California. I have been accused of being a 'cotton man.' I plead guilty.
I realize California agriculture has in many ways has passed cotton by into more high value crops like almonds, processing tomatoes, vegetables, pistachios, grapes, walnuts and pomegranates to name a few. This is all part of the agricultural evolution that makes California the most exciting place in the world to be an agricultural journalist.
Nevertheless, on a recent post-Thanksgiving drive west on Highway 152 between Chowchilla and Los Banos for a family farm pheasant hunt and barbecue, it did this old cotton man’s heart good to see plenty of roadside snow and the cotton modules (and those new-fangled round bales) lining the edges of harvested fields. You know times are good when those modules are bunched closely down the turn rows. I have never been good at matching module numbers to field size for yield guesstimates; but I do know the more the modules, higher the yields. After a rocky start and some unseasonable summer cool spells, farmers are generally happy with what is in those modules.
Most are calling 2011 a good cotton year, better than last season. Three bale Pima and Acala yields are common. Pima seemed to do better than most expected, blooming and setting bolls well into the fall all the way to the top of the plant. Four-bale Pima was logged this season.
After the farm barbecue, I wanted to take the scenic route back to Fresno. I drove my wife on a Grey Line tour of Dos Palos, South Dos Palos, Mendota, Firebaugh, Kerman and Rolinda. She had a hard time staying awake, even with an ongoing narrative about the landscape of field work activities, grain elevators and crops with an occasional whiff of fresh tilled dirt and a dairy or two.
I enjoyed it more than she did. Post-harvest fall is the slow time for farming, but there is something special about freshly prepared fields and dormant orchards and vineyards. There is almost anticipation in this dormancy period when fields and orchards are readied for another year.
It is also the cotton snow along the road that makes it special for this cotton man.