The word “quality” is regularly spoken by Allen Pierucci when the third-generation California cotton grower talks about fiber production on the family’s operation in Buttonwillow.

Pierucci is among a lengthy list of cotton producers in the San Joaquin Valley (SJV) who practice what they preach — producing the highest quality cotton possible. This is why SJV producers grow some of the finest fiber in the world.

“We are sticklers on cotton quality on our farm,” said Pierucci, 56, who with his wife Lori own and operate Julian Pierucci and Son Farms in Buttonwillow, Calif.  “I evaluate what it will take each year to grow the highest quality cotton and then put into practice the necessary steps.”

With quality in mind, Pierucci’s management practices include weed management inside and around fields, plus maintaining equipment in prime running condition.
“Maintaining the equipment in tip-top condition is what makes money for the grower,” Pierucci said.

During the harvest, pickers are generally cleaned twice a day especially in “dirty fields” with many leaves. Cotton is never picked wet. The green leaf aphid and whitefly pests are closely managed to eliminate the chance of sticky cotton.

Cotton merchants tell Pierucci that his cotton rates as some of the best quality cotton grown in the region. Pierucci doles out kudos to the Farmers Cooperative Gin in Buttonwillow for its expertise in cotton ginning.

Pierucci’s crop is marketed through Jess Smith and Sons, and White Gold; both based in Bakersfield.

Pierucci, 56, took a work break in early September to discuss his 2012 cotton crop, production practices, plus a shift on the operation to permanent crops on non-cotton ground.

This year, the Pierucci farm includes 1,140 acres of cotton; 614 acres of Acala and 526 acres of Pima. All the seed is Phytogen varieties.

Other crops include 210 acres of alfalfa, 72 acres of six-year-old pomegranate trees, and 35 acres of spring wheat.

“This is probably the best cotton crop that we’ve had in three years,” Pierucci said with a smile. “I think the yield will be average to slightly above; 3 bales per acre for Acala (Upland) and 2.75 bales for Pima.”

Pima cotton is generally picked twice and Acala once. Harvest is likely to begin in early October. “My Dad (Julian) taught me no matter how the cotton looks don’t count it until it’s in the bale,” Pierucci said. “I live by those words.”
The Pierucci family has grown cotton since the late 1920s. Allen grew his first crop after high school and became a farm partner in 1980.

Key to cotton future

Pierucci says the overall 2012 growing season was “very good for cotton production.” The season began with a cold, early spring, but summer heat units delivered on-time plant maturity. Pima planting on the Pierucci farm began March 29 and a week later for Acala. Several applications of Pix managed plant maturity with more Pix applied to Pima than Acala.

A late-July heat wave caused some crop loss on the top of the plant, but not in the middle and bottom areas.

Over the last five years, populations of green leaf aphid and whitefly have increased on the farm largely tied to spring rains. This year, less spring moisture reduced pest numbers. The insecticide Assail applied at the 1.5 ounce per acre rate managed the aphid and whitefly pests.

“We defoliate the cotton one week after the spray,” Pierucci says. “We don’t want the insects to live and secrete on the cotton and cause stickiness. We work hard to deliver a quality product to our merchants.”

Crop defoliation began in mid-September. On the fertilization side, phosphate and potash is applied preplant in dairy manure by a spreader at the rate of 5 tons per acre on some fields.

Later, petioles are analyzed to determine the plant’s nitrogen needs. About 225 units of NH3-N (ammonia nitrogen) were incorporated preplant in several fields. The amount applied on average ranges from 180 to 225 units. Zinc is applied, depending on petiole analysis results, in 7-24-6 or 4-10-10 mixtures.

Plant water requirements average about 3.5 acre feet annually. A mixture of well water combined with surface water from the Buena Vista Water Storage District is delivered by furrow irrigation.

The district water assessment ranges from $35 to $40 per acre. Electricity costs to pump well water average $40 to $50 per acre foot. The farm’s 10 wells are 400 to 500 feet deep.

The most common soil on the Pierucci farm is a heavy loam called “Buttonwillow black dirt.” The soil is well suited for cotton, pistachios, alfalfa, and many grain crops.

This year, Pierucci forward contracted 400 bales of Acala at $1.03 per pound.

Looking down the road to retirement, Pierucci will plant pistachios, the UCD-1 variety, next spring in the ground where wheat was harvested this year. Ground preparation for the permanent crop is currently underway.

“Pistachios grow well in this area,” the Kern County farmer said. “Eventually, the ground I own — about 50 percent of the total farm — will likely be planted in pistachios due to the crop’s growing popularity with consumers, price, and reduced labor needs compared to field crops.”

Leased land will continue in field crop production. Pierucci values his landlords.

“My landlords are very important to me and I consider them very close farming partners.”

From Pierucci’s perspective, what is the future of the California cotton industry?

“I have to be optimistic since I am a cotton grower. It’s in my genes,” Pierucci said.

The key to the cotton industry’s future, he says, is finding new ways to reduce production costs. “We must incorporate the latest information including GPS and a wide range of other technologies to become even more efficient producers.”

Pierucci was awarded Western Farm Press’ coveted High Cotton Award in 2010 for his successful production practices and good stewardship of the land.

cblake@farmpress.com