California’s San Joaquin Valley cotton farmers typically look forward to enjoying Thanksgiving dinner because they know their crop has been gathered.
This year the turkey may give them indigestion.
“We will be picking cotton in California in December,” said Don Cameron, general manager of Terranova Ranch in Helm, Calif., as he watched irrigation water run in his Pima cotton on Sept. 9 this year, far later than he expected.
Like most other SJV producers, he had no choice but to irrigate very late.
“Even with Pima prices at $1.50 per pound, we had no choice but to push the cotton to make a late-set top crop to have any hope of making money this season on cotton,” said Cameron, the newly elected chairman of Supima.
“If the weather warms back up, the plants will suffer without water,” he said during an unseasonable cool spell in early September. “It scares me irrigating this late, but our ground is a little lighter and I took the chance. I would not irrigate Sept. 9, if I was on heavy ground.”
Virtually all California crops are late this year due to a prolonged, wet and cold spring. A relatively mild summer did not provide any catch-up weather. “Our tomatoes are late just like our grapes and prunes,” said Cameron.
Cotton is the longest season crop grown in the Central Valley. There are still 60 days left to make a crop.
“Cotton has the most exposure from this year,” lamented Cameron. “We know we will be picking when it’s cold. We just hope it is not rainy and foggy in November and December.”
This late season is particularly bittersweet for cotton producers because demand for Pima and Acala is at levels not seen in several years. Roller-ginned Acala cotton recently moved into the 90 cents to $1 range.
Thirty-eight percent of the 2010 Pima crop has already been sold at excellent price levels.
This has been a comeback year for California cotton after falling last season to the lowest statewide acreage since the 1920s — just under 200,000 acres. Strong cotton prices as a result of growing demand and reduced stocks had many predicting 2010 SJV cotton acreage would reach 350,000 acres.
After a miserable spring, which many veteran producers called the “worst ever,” the final acreage came in at about 303,000 acres, said Earl Williams, president of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association.
“I was doubtful we would make 300,000 after the very poor start we had,” said Williams. Of the final total, 170,000 are Pima, the rest Acala/Upland.
USDA/NASS is projecting yields to be 1,174 pounds for Pima. The Acala/Upland average is forecast to average just over 3 bales.
Williams calls those yield estimates “optimistic.
“We have a long way to go before this crop is picked. We have a higher percentage than normal top crop to be made,” said Williams, who is estimating Pima yields from 2 to 2.25 bales and Upland/Acala from 2.5 to 2.75 bales.
Fortunately, there is sufficient cotton harvesting equipment to gather this crop quickly when it is ready, said Williams.
“The biggest concern about this late crop is that Pima has to be second picked and that could be a big problem this season. I have never seen less than a quarter-bale from second-picked Pima. With this top crop we are seeing, second picking could be as much as a half bale this year. That is a lot of cotton.”
Heavy rain and fog is never good for open cotton. It can be particularly costly for Pima cotton. Discounts for Pima cotton in the past have been as much as 50 percent between high grades and low grades. Currently, there are 30 cents to 50 cents per pound discounts between Pima grades 1, 2 and 3 and grades 4 and 5.
2010 an expensive crop year
For many producers, 2010 has been an expensive crop, primarily with lygus control costs. It is not uncommon to find growers who have applied three or four lygus sprays and still have a small crop. Others have not treated for the plant bug. Still other producers have treated the more normal one time.
“It is a mixed bag across the valley,” said Williams. “We have some doggone good looking cotton and some doggone poor cotton because of insect damage and poor stands. The one common thread is that all cotton is late.”
Lygus has been in cotton virtually all season. The pest is typically an early spring pest that attacks the bottom crop.
Cameron said he has little bottom crop, but not due to lygus. “We did not have lygus in our Pima. It just would not set a crop. We Pixed and Pixed it, and it kept going vegetative.”
It has also been an ideal year for aphid and whitefly. They are popping up late this season, and that has many very worried.
It brings back nightmares of a decade ago when the 2001 SJV crop became a sticky cotton disaster. Textile mills revolted against California cotton because it was sticky from honeydew deposited by the aphids and whiteflies. This honeydew gummed up the textile manufacturing process, and it took several years for California cotton to regain its long-standing reputation for clean cotton.
“We have already spent a lot money on this crop for no more yield that we can expect, and it is difficult to justify putting more money into the crop late to control aphids and whiteflies,” Cameron said.
“However, if we end up with sticky cotton that would be a disaster in this high demand cotton market for California cotton.
“Cotton looks good for California for the next several years, and we do not want to jeopardize that future with a sticky cotton reputation,” said Cameron.
“There is a good cotton market out there and it is more important than ever to deliver a clean crop by protecting it against aphids and whiteflies. The last thing we need is sticky cotton in a tight market situation,” Williams echoed.
The California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations directed an aggressive information campaign after 2001 to prevent another sticky cotton year. It paid off.
Williams reminds growers not to make the same mistake many did in 2001 when most everyone thought the sticky threat would be over once the cotton was defoliated.
“That particular year after the cotton was defoliated, it rained and that resulted in tremendous re-growth where aphid and whitefly fed and got honeydew all over the lint. I am concerned about the issue of sticky cotton with the lateness of this crop.”
He urged growers facing threat from the honeydew-depositing pests to put an insecticide in with defoliants.
“It is everyone’s responsibility from the grower to the PCA to the ginner and to the merchant to make sure sticky cotton does not happen. We cannot afford to be complacent. And if it is sticky, honest up about it. Don’t go blending clean and sticky cotton to try to get rid of it,” he added.
This concern is heightened because there is more than just one year riding on this crop. Although late, if growers and ginners can get this SJV crop into bales without damage, it will only bolster a very promising 2011 season and beyond. Otherwise, there could be rough sledding, even in a promising market.
2011 cotton acreage
Williams recently surveyed the association’s directors, and they are penciling in a 20 percent increase in cotton acreage next year.
“It looks like our water situation will be much better next season than it was this year,” Williams said. The 2010 season started with only a 5 percent surface water delivery guarantee. It eventually reached 50 percent, but that guarantee came too late for changing spring planting decisions.
“It looks like we can start 2011 with a 15 to 20 percent water allocation,” Williams reports.
Economically cotton will benefit from that since cotton is now entrenched in the mix of crop options.
“Cotton is back economically,” Williams said.
Ernest Schroeder Jr., chief executive officer for Bakersfield, Calif., cotton merchant Jess Smith and Sons, said cotton is in a “very good situation right now.”
“There is no carry-in and supplies are tight. Textile mills are doing well, and yarn prices are up. It is a very healthy, and I believe, stable market for cotton right now.”
Schroeder does not view the current market situation as a “blip.”
“I think the 2010 crop will sell out before the 2011 crop is harvested even with more acreage next season.”
Demand is driving prices skyward. They are getting nervously high, Schroeder admits.
Adjustments downward would not be surprising this fall, but Schroeder does not expect a market freefall.
“It is going to take several years to replenish stocks because consumption is outpacing supplies,” he said.
The San Joaquin Valley lives and dies on the strength of Pima cotton. It has been a roller coaster ride of late.
Two years ago 850,000 bales of American Pima were sold with many forecasting there would be a 1-million-bale market in Pima’s future.
Then the world recession hit. Many believed the luxury goods market where Pima is sold would weather the storm. It did not.
“Eighteen months ago you could hardly give away a Pima bale,” said Jesse Curlee, president of Supima, the marketing and promotion organization for American Pima cotton.
Some gave up the Pima niche market for dead, but Supima kept pushing forward with its marketing and licensing efforts.
Perseverance paid off, and demand has rebounded.
“We could definitely use a bigger crop than it looks like we will have this year,” said Curlee.
Pima buyers, particularly the 365 Supima licensees, are frequently calling the association’s Phoenix offices to get an update on the 2010 crop. There are concerns that supplies will not meet market demand.
“I suspect all the Pima cotton will go to the licensees. Those who want Pima for its fine fiber feel in generic products are going to have tough time getting it,” said Curlee.
Merchants are cautiously selling 2010 crop, uncertain of supplies at this point.
“Buyers are not happy with the price, but they think they will get what the need,” he said. “They need Pima to support the brand.”
Half of the American Pima crop will go to China, not only for Supima products produced there for export, but for the consumer market in China. “China’s economy is strong, and we are looking more and more at that market for consumer advertising,” Curlee said.
Supima’s marketing efforts have revitalized demand. However, Curlee said the retail economy if far from a full pre-recession recovery.
“Retail and specialty stores are still not as well off as they would like. They are still suffering and cautious. However, they have decided to move forward and start buying again. Supima has got enough power to keep it going in this economy. It is a strong branded program for retailers like Bloomingdale’s and Brooks Brothers.”
California cotton’s future is bright, if fall weather will cooperate.