Nothing has happened this season to move the spotlight off one of the most exciting and perplexing cotton options ever to confront California's San Joaquin Valley cotton growers and marketers.

If anything, producers who have had a second season to look at the hybrid Hazera cottons from Israel are more excited than ever about the cotton everyone wants to grow, but no one knows for sure where it will fit in the marketplace. Marketers know it will fit, but where and at what price.

Who wouldn't want to grow it with the opportunity to increase lint yields by 20 percent to 25 percent with less water in salty soils with hybrid seedling vigor and get a Pima-like fiber quality?

This season only 1,200 acres of Hazera hybrid cottons, primarily HA-195, were produced by 25 growers in the valley from Firebaugh in Western Fresno County to the grapevine in Kern County on the southern end of the valley. Most of that cotton is yet to be picked, but like much of the rest of the valley's cotton the hybrids look like they will be high yielders for the second season in a row.

Seed in demand

“We had eight tons of seed this year,” said Meir Gadisman of Davis, Calif., field crops and development manager for Hazera Seeds. “Right now we don't know how much seed we will have next year, but if it is 100 tons, it would not be enough based on the reaction we are getting from producers.”

Gadisman made his comments at one of two fields days hosted by Hazera and Gowan Seed Co., distributor for the hybrid seeds.

Hazera hybrids captured the imagination of producers with yield results in last year's San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board Pima trials where HA-195 yielded from 200 pounds to almost 630 pounds of lint per acre more than the next variety in the trail. It recorded a mean yield increase of a bale per acre across the valley trials. No cotton in the history of SJVCB testing program has recorded such a yield increase.

However, there is no free lunch, and Hazera has one major drawback. Seed cost is almost $7 per pound and that is not likely to change in the near future. “The cost is tied directly the cost of production,” said Gadisman. “We are working to streamline seed production, but for the foreseeable future, we do not see the seed cost changing.”

That runs planting cost from perhaps $10 to $12 per acre to $70 per acre and changes the economics of cotton. However, a yield increase potential of 25 percent and lower production costs takes some of the sting away from high seed costs.

Marketing dilemma

The biggest dilemma facing Hazera is marketing. Right now it is identified as a Pima, but its fiber properties are generally lower than other Pimas produced in the valley. It has been described as a hot rod Ford in a field of Cadillacs. Some marketers and mills are concerned that it will drag down the value of the higher grade Pimas.

However, Marc Lewkowitz of Fresno, Calif., marketing manager for Queensland Cotton/Anderson Clayton Corp in the San Joaquin Valley, sees Hazera as only a positive development for the valley. He believes it offers a new opportunity to market high-grade niche cotton from the San Joaquin Valley.

He calls the Hazera cottons a “win-win” for producers and merchants.

The San Joaquin Valley's high production costs make it imperative that the valley's cotton industry continually raise the quality bar, and the lint properties of Hazera cottons offer that opportunity.

Hazera, he said, offers mills a new style of cotton from the San Joaquin. “There is a similar cotton now being produced in Peru, and it is being accepted by the mills.”

“You can call it what you want — Pima, Acala or whatever, but I believe it will sell,” said Lewkowitz. Mills will use its high lint quality as a blend fiber or by itself.

Limits market test

Last year's valley production totaled only about 2,200 bales and it won't be much more than that this year. This is not enough to truly test the market, agree Gadisman and Lewkowitz.

“It will take a large supply for the mills to try large lots of it to see where it will work in their programs,” said Gadisman.

Hazera is a brighter white fiber than traditional Pimas, and it has better elongation and uniformity than other Pimas, according to Gadisman “Hybrid cottons have unique fiber properties just like they have unique agronomic properties,” said Gadisman.

Lewkowitz is an unabashed supporter of Hazera.

“You are talking about a high quality cotton that offers tremendous yield potential in the toughest soils in the valley,” he said. “You have growers talking about liquidating their saltier land for $1,500.” With Hazera, growers can profitably farm that land.

Also, the potential for water savings with hybrid cottons loom even larger as farmers struggle each year with lower surface water supplies. Already land is being fallowed because water is not available to farm it.

Gadisman and Lewkowitz are quick to point out that California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors (CPCSD) Ultima cotton is opening the door for niche cottons like Hazera in the marketplace.

Ultima is a high quality Acala that roller-ginned is gaining a market premium of 10 cents per pound over saw-ginned Acalas. CPCSD is working with Cotton Incorporated in developing an Ultima product for the consumer market.

Leading way

Ultima is leading the way into new styles of SJV cotton that will bring more money per pound in developing new, high quality fiber markets.

“Hazera is a true hybrid not only as a cotton, but in the marketplace as well,” said Gadisman.

HA-195 continues to be slotted in the SJVCB Pima trials, but Hazera may not leave it there in the process toward winning the board's approval for official release. It may be designated as an Acala by Hazera or the company may seek its release as a specialty cotton like Nem-X, the nematode resistant cotton from CPCSD.

“Hazera has a place in the salty grounds of the valley where other cottons do not do well — just like Nem-X does well where nematodes are a problem,” pointed out Gadisman.

However, he points out that no final decision has been made on which direction to take the cotton. HA-195 is finishing up its second of three years of mandatory SJVCB board testing.

Although demand is high for the hybrid cottons, supplies will be short next season. Gadisman estimates that 50 to 100 tons of seed will be available. That represents a significant increase in acreage over this year, but it would only be enough seed for 5,000 to 10,000 acres.

Gowan will not have any trouble selling seed next season, predicts Gadisman and the demand may also come from outside of California, too.

Hazera has test plots in Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas.

“People are wanting to took at it to see where it might pay off. Fit is the key — where production can be significant enough to offset the seed costs and make a profit. However, people are excited about it because of its yield potential in tough conditions,” said Gadisman.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com