The curtain will go up March 10 on the San Joaquin Valley cotton planting season.

The mandatory pink bollworm host-free period ends then and what begins will be an extraordinary cotton season.

Most experts believe 450,000 acres of cotton will be seeded to Pima and Acala/upland cottons in the six-county cotton growing region that once boasted 1.5 million acres of cotton. It could reach 500,000 this season, but it is not likely.

What makes this season astonishing is the fact that the value of the cotton from a half million acres will likely equal the cash generated from the 1.5 million acres harvested in the mid 1980s. The 2011 SJV cotton crop could generate farm income of more than $1 billion, just like it did 30 years ago.

Pima prices nearing $3 per pound and Acala at $2 would seemingly warrant a cotton planting frenzy. Some individual farmers will significantly expand their acreage this year over last. However, others will maintain the same acreage amount as last season, with some growers possibly reducing cotton acreage.

Once the economic king of the valley, cotton now competes economically with many other crops. Even at historically high prices, crops like low input wheat can generate income equal to cotton with far less inputs for some producers. Cotton’s biggest competitor for acreage on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley over the past decade has been cannery-contracted processing tomatoes.

Growers do not want to give up their tomato contracts, even though cotton prices are high and tomato prices are expected to be somewhat lower than last season. Steadily increasing tomato yields with improved management practices and drip irrigation can boost tonnage and cut costs to offset a year of lower prices. California produces more than 95 percent of the U. S. processing tomatoes and if canneries want to tomatoes for their customers, they must contract with California growers.

Cotton will likely take acreage from alfalfa this season, although record prices are projected for 2011 alfalfa. Those record prices will be tempered by a dairy industry continuing to struggle with relatively low prices and significantly higher feed costs.

Ironically, some dairymen who have sold their herds will grow cotton on former forage ground. Some operating dairies are growing cash crops on ground once reserved exclusively for dairy feed crops in an effort to generate cash to offset milk losses.

500,000-acre cotton possibility

However, the biggest reason there will not be much more than 500,000 acres of cotton this year is ground that was in cotton 30 years ago is in trees and vines, particularly almonds and pistachios.

Nevertheless, cotton growers present, past and newbies flocked to the four Phytogen 2011 Variety Seminars held recently in the San Joaquin Valley, according to Dow AgroSciences valley representatives Harry Peck and Nick Higgins.

And the word from Peck at the last gathering in Lemoore was that the popular Phy 830 Pima will be on allocation and the conventional Acala, Phy 72 is in limited supplies because of big demand for planting seed. Some growers are putting in orders at several different suppliers to make sure they get planting seed to capture the highest cotton prices in generations.

“We were sold out of 72, but we had a big order cancel recently, so we have had some supplies become available,” said Peck.

Phytogen operates the only Pima and Acala breeding programs and Peck estimates Phytogen varieties will be planted to 85 percent of the SJV cotton ground starting March 10.

Peck is going with the conventional 450,000 SJV cotton acreage estimate. He splits it 270,000 acres of Pima and 160,000 acres of Acala/upland.

Phy 805 Roundup Flex Pima will again require that growers sign a stewardship agreement that the cottonseed will be segregated from conventional cottonseed since Japan has still not approved glyphosate-resistant Pima to be imported there. Conventional Phy 800 will also be sold as will a limited supply of Phy 802RF Pima. This is a new Pima variety with much improved fiber properties than its parents 805 and 800.  Peck said there is enough seed to plant only 7,000 to 8,000 acres of 802RF next season.

805, 800 and 802 have resistance for fusarium race 4 — 830 does not.

However, 830 is on allocation, despite Phytogen producing three times as much seed as last year, because of its growing popularity.

Phy 830 was bred for earliness to hopefully give northern San Joaquin Valley growers a long staple cotton they could grow. It is seven to 10 days earlier than the other Pimas, and last year that became a highly recognized attribute in the Central Valley because it was a cold, wet spring and much Pima went in late. Longer-season Pima must be planted by about April 20 to harvest it before fog and rain settles into the valley.

Phy 805RF and Phy 800 planting seed supplies are plentiful to plant Peck’s Pima acreage projection. However, he said if the weather prevents a significant percentage of Pima from getting planted and growers switch to Acala, there may be a seed supply issue with substitutes like Phy 755 WRF and PHY 725 RF Acala.

Cotton’s dramatic price rebound has even generated new SJV cotton growers, said Peck. “We had cotton on ground last year that had never grown cotton and I expect the same thing to happen this year,” Peck added.

While growers have never seen prices like this, they do not expect the glow to last forever. However, Peck said cotton prices look to remain strong in 2012 because the carryover worldwide is once again expected to be minimal.

“Cotton looks good for growers and suppliers alike,” said Peck.

hcline@farmpress.com