Buttonwillow, Calif., is a major stop for motorists traveling Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Laid out in 1895, the Kern County community of about 1,200 at the intersection of I-5 and State Route 58 is far more than a fuel-and-food stop for people in a hurry. It is rich in history.
It is where San Joaquin Valley agricultural pioneers and cattlemen Henry Miller and Charles Lux established their Kern County headquarters in 1885. Not far from the gas stations and restaurants on the busy interstate is Tule Elk State Natural Reserve where Miller’s workers discovered what was believed to be the last surviving pair of Tule elk.
He ordered them protected and put up a $500 reward for anyone who disturbed them. Today more than 5,000 Tule elk survive from Miller’s noble deed 125 years ago just outside of Buttonwillow.
According to people who keep track of such things, Buttonwillow is the center of California’s population.
The town is also where Italian immigrant Joe Pierucci settled, far from his homeland in Italy’s Tuscany region. He transitioned to America through Ellis Island and went directly to Kern County where he went to work for Miller and Lux. Not long after arriving, the former Italian grape grower bought 120 acres southeast of town to begin farming.
Thus began three generations of Pierucci farmers in the rich black land surrounding the town named for a buttonbush that was used by the ancient Yokut Indians as a meeting place.
This southern end of the San Joaquin is also cotton country where for 80 years the finest upland cotton in the world, Acala, has been grown. Since the 1980s, it also has been a major growing area for Pima cotton, the world’s finest Extra Long Staple cotton.
It is where Joe’s grandson and Julian Pierucci’s son, Allen Pierucci, lives and farms 1,600 acres, including 950 acres of Acala and Pima cotton.
“I was destined to be a farmer — a cotton farmer,” Allen proudly proclaims. “There is something about getting up in the morning smelling picker grease. I also just like the smell of cotton.”
Pierucci, 53, who has been farming all his life, is this year’s High Cotton award winner from the West.
He is a superior cotton farmer; a steward of the land, as well, according to Ernie Schroeder Jr., chief executive officer of Jess Smith and Sons Cotton, the Bakersfield, Calif., merchant that markets Pierucci’s cotton. Schroeder nominated Pierucci for the High Cotton award.
“When I have cotton buyers visit, I take them to Allen’s farm. He understands what the mills want and delivers high quality, contamination-free cotton,” said Schroeder.
Unfortunately, cotton farmer numbers are dwindling in the San Joaquin Valley. Acreage has fallen from more than 1 million acres 12 years ago to less than 200,000 this season due to a three-year drought, more economically attractive competing crops to use available water, and the growth of permanent crops like orchards and vineyards.
However, cotton remains king in the Buttonwillow area where 15 percent of the state’s cotton acreage was grown in 2009.
However, Schroeder and others in the industry say cotton is poised for a comeback next season. It could reach 400,000 acres in 2010 as cotton prices firm up and alternatives to cotton fade economically.
Pima is looking particularly attractive for next season as mills pick up their buying of SJV ELS. Pima’s 2010 prospects received a big boost late last fall with the announcement that Roundup Flex Pima from Phytogen would be available next season. It is the first herbicide-resistant Pima available to growers.
“It will make a big difference for me. It will definitely encourage me to grow more Pima next season,” Pierucci said.
About 200 acres of his 2009 crop was Pima. He wished he had planted more. He was one of the early growers to plant Pima when it was approved for planting in the valley.
Pierucci farms as Julian Pierucci and Son Farms. Allen and his dad became partners in 1980. Julian died in 2001. “I was educated at the University of Julian,” he proclaims.
“My dad was reluctant to get into Pima. I am more willing to try new things … at least a little bit to start.”
There is more Pima cotton grown in the San Joaquin today than upland. Pima has also revolutionized the Acala business by introducing roller ginning for the Acalas. ELS must be roller ginned. The percentage of Acalas being roller ginned each year is increasing as California creates a new premium cotton niche in the world market.
“I never heard of roller ginning until Pima came along. All my Acala was roller ginned this year,” said Pierucci. He gins at Farmers Co-op in Buttonwillow, where all but 3,000 of the 50,000 bales through the gin last season were roller ginned.
Growers get a 3 percent higher turnout and premium price for the roller-ginned Acala. It can bring as much as 12 cents more per pound than saw ginned cotton. It costs about a nickel per pound more to roller gin upland.
“The Phytogen varieties we grow are well-suited for roller ginning,” said Pierucci. His primary Acala is Phytogen 725RF and his Pima variety is Phytogen 800. His Acala is averaging a little more than three bales this season. The Pima yielded an average of three bales. “They are always pretty close on yield. The difference is that Pima is later to harvest. My Pima acreage is dependent on the spring. Plant too late, and you can run into problems at harvest.”
Schroeder says roller ginning Acalas reduces neps and increases spinning value. The return to the grower for roller ginning Acalas depends on the debt service for the gin.
Like most farmers, Pierucci faces the yearly challenges of rising costs. He has embraced technology to keep his costs in check. Herbicide resistant cottons have made a big dent in costs.
“We used to cultivate at least two to three times for morningglory and bindweed alone. With the Roundup-resistant technology, we cultivate once and spray for weeds,” he said.
Pierucci admits many farmers do not cultivate at all with the herbicide resistant varieties. “We use Bezzerides before we irrigate. The (cultivated) cotton seems to take off after you irrigate. The Bezzerides open up the soil a bit so oxygen can get into it.”
Pierucci describes Bezzerides cultivating tools as “like a Texas rod weeder, but more stout.” The tillage tool is “like a series of leaf springs with little buttons on them. They are odd-looking things. They are more expensive than other cultivation tools, but they really knock the weeds out.”
Bezzerides are made by Bezzeride Brothers, Inc. in Orosi, Calif.
Pierucci has joined the ranks of precision ag producers utilizing GPS tractor guidance systems and field mapping. He uses AutoFarm for furrowing out, disking and ripping. “Auto guidance systems are much more efficient and they save time and fuel. When it is foggy, you do not have people standing around waiting for the fog to lift before going into the field.
“It is also getting harder and harder to find good tractor drivers who can follow markers and furrow out. With these GPS systems you can put an untrained driver on a tractor and get nice straight rows; no watermelon rows, and no overlapping when disking or ripping,” he said.
Pierucci’s cotton is planted in 38-inch rows. Reduced tillage also makes it easier to comply with air pollution control measures.
“The key to this black ground we have is you want to get your field preparation work done as soon as possible before it rains. If you work it wet, you make buckshot and gumbo out of it,” he explained.
He cuts stalks behind the pickers and wants to get fields disked and bedded before Christmas, ready to pre-irrigate in early January. He irrigates with surface water when it is available and has wells as backup.
“The drought has affected us. We have not had aqueduct water in the winter for the past few years, and we have to use wells. Our water is shallow — 180 to 220 feet deep.
“However, the drought has not been as hard on us as it has on the Westlands Water District and other farmers on the West Side of the valley,” he said.
Like all California producers, Pierucci is diversified. He also grows alfalfa, wheat and last year onions for the dehydrator. In addition, he recently planted a 72-acre pomegranate orchard.
“Last year (2008) alfalfa was fantastic. I did not sell anything for less than $210 per ton,” he said. Prices collapsed under the weight of the worldwide recession and the dramatic economic downturn in the dairy industry. “I have been waiting for one ‘check’s in the mail’ for seven weeks. No one is returning phone calls.”
Buttonwillow has a deep Italian heritage. Allen said many of the families who settled in Buttonwillow came from the same Tuscany region of Italy, which is world famous for its wine and food.
Like many Italians, Allen’s grandfather loved to cook. An uncle was a chef.
“They took an old Mack truck and converted it into a cook shack and followed the harvest, cooking for the crews in the 1920s and 1930s.
“I also love to cook. The kitchen I have at the farm headquarters is probably nicer than the one I have at home in town. I love to cook gourmet Italian, but I also do a lot of barbecuing. I bought a new barbecue at World Ag Expo a couple of years ago.”
Allen can be found cooking at the Buttonwillow Lions Club fund-raisers. He has been a member of the club for 25 years. The Lions sponsor numerous events to raise funds for scholarships and other local needs.
“The Lions Club is a big deal in Buttonwillow. The club does a lot of good for the community. Many other Lions Clubs in the valley come to see what the Buttonwillow club is doing,” Schroeder said.
Allen also loves to talk about farming. He has hosted teachers on his farm for several years to educate them about California agriculture.
The walls of Julian Pierucci and Sons office are adorned with pictures of his family on the farm. There is a movie poster on the wall as well. It is for the 1965 flick, “The Man from Button Willow.” Pierucci was 10 years old when the voice of the animated movie hero came to town.
“Dale Roberson starred in it and came to Buttonwillow. I went to see him and remember later driving to Bakersfield to see the premier at the Fox Theater,” Pierucci recalled.
Buttonwillow was misspelled in the movie title and the story line had nothing to do with the Kern County town. Nevertheless, the movie put the town on the map.
Pierucci wants to keep it on the map as more than a feed-and-fuel stop on the interstate. He also wants it to live up to its reputation proclaimed on the sign on the town’s main street — Buttonwillow; Heart of Cotton Country.