It has been a decade since cotton returned to the Sacramento Valley.

North state acreage never reached the hype generated by its return, but cotton is hanging in there. A few over enthusiastic early on predicted it could reach 250,000 acres. After all, the University of California had identified Orland as the most ideal place to grow cotton in California. It has never come close. Nevertheless, there are about 50 determined producers who continue to make cotton part of their farming operations.

There are only about 8,500 acres of cotton in the Sacramento Valley this year. It was about the same the year before. It took a tumble from the 20,000 acres or more in 2001 and 2002. Overall, California cotton acreage has declined over the same period.

“What really hurt when Yolo County dropped out,” said Doug Munier, Glenn County agronomy farm advisor who moved to Northern California from Kern County about the same time cotton came back into the Sacramento Valley. “It was just too cool to make a good cotton crop in Yolo.” Munier works in all cotton-growing counties in Northern California.

A huge increase in rice acreage this year also cut into potential cotton acreage. “I saw rice planted on ground I had not seen in rice in the 10 years I have been up here,” said Munier.

And just like in the San Joaquin Valley, almonds are taking good cotton ground. One of the largest cotton growers in the Sacramento Valley, Van Brothers, is no longer growing cotton. Almonds replaced it.

The man responsible for cotton resurrection is retired Chico State University ag professor Buel Mouser, who has grown cotton on the California State University Farm since 1976. Before Mouser went to Chico to initially manage the college farm, he had been a Kern County cotton farmer.

Report sparks return

As he retired, Mouser summarized his cotton growing efforts on the farm and that report sparked a return of commercial cotton to the Sacramento Valley. Cotton had been grown decades earlier in the valley, but disappeared with poor varieties and bad prices.

It returned with shorter season varieties; lower water costs than in the San Joaquin and the need to replace disappearing crops like sugar beets.

However, it was a contentious return. The early cotton crops were damaged by phenoxy herbicide drift and rice growers were blamed. Several lawsuits were filed. Olive growers complained that verticillium wilt brought in with the cotton would ruin olive orchards, even though olives and cotton have co-existed in the San Joaquin Valley for decades. Nevertheless, county ordinances were passed to preclude cotton from certain areas of Butte County.

John Gilbert of Adams Grain Co., Arbuckle, Calif., has also been a key player in cotton's return to the Sacramento Valley. Adams is a partner in Sacramento Valley Ginning Co. The other is North Valley Gin in Sutter County.

“There are a group of growers who like cotton as a rotation crop and have learned how to grow it well,” said Gilbert, who estimates growers averaged about 3 bales per acre last season after a poor start. This year's yield average will likely be closer to 3.5 bales. The dominant variety is Deltapine 388.

It is also an overall much better California cotton crop that last season. Many are predicting record yields for San Joaquin Valley Cotton.

Gilbert said north state growers who established cotton base make cotton competitive with the other crops through the government program.

People will stay

“People who have been in cotton for awhile will stay in it. I don't think cotton is going away, even though acreage is small right now. It is a risky crop because for us this far north because of the fall rains we can have,” said Gilbert.

The only question is can the current acreage (about 25,000 bales) support two gins.

Another issue growers are struggling with is irrigation management, said Munier. “It has been either too frequent or not enough,” said Munier. “I think we are still in the learning curve when it comes to irrigation.”

Munier is a strong advocate of using the pressure bomb to measure cotton water stress. This is particularly important on that first irrigation.

“We want to focus on higher yields here by focusing on water and Pix use. Water stress and Pix use have been shown to actually reduce yields, and this is something we want to avoid,” he said.

Munier continues to work with weed control efforts. “We have to deal with nightshade like they do in the San Joaquin Valley. We also have velvetleaf here and that is not in the San Joaquin,” he added.

“Cotton requires more intense management than many of the other crops here, but I think cotton will continue to have a future here because for the most part growers who are producing cotton are risk takers — guys willing to take the risks to reap the rewards,” said Munier.

Cotton is no longer as controversial as it once was. It was so divisive in the valley that one grower built a dummy Scud missile and painted “Cotton Control” on the side and propped it up alongside a rural road. On the missile's tail was a cotton boll with a red circle around it and a line through the middle of the circle. Emotions have cooled since then, and many believe the phenoxy herbicide drift controversy was a blessing in disguise. Phenoxy herbicide drift was an issue before cotton came into the valley.

Drift sensitive

However, cotton is perhaps the most sensitive crop to phenoxy drift and it brought the problem to a head. After the lawsuits, many rice growers shifted to Propanil by ground. That solved the aerial drift issue on not only cotton, but other crops as well.

This will be the last cotton season for the man who started it all, the 79-year-old Mouser.

When his report on growing cotton at the Chico State Farm sparked the renewal of cotton the valley, Mouser became a consultant and teamed up with venerable retired USDA plant physiologist and cotton breeder V.T. Walhood to develop new cotton varieties for the valley.

They have been conducting variety trials for several years on the Chico state farm. He also works with Munier on his UC trials. California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors, Stoneville and Deltapine support these trials.

“I think V.T. and I are going to hang it up after this season,” Mouser said. “We are getting a bit too old to go traipsing through cotton fields all summer. However, we have some cottons that have looked pretty good. We wish someone would continue with them.”

“I have retired from cotton growing twice before and now I think I am going to make it a third time,” said Mouser. “It has been an interesting journey with cotton up here — lot of work and a lot of fun.”

Munier smiled at Mouser's comments and as he walked away said, “I am sure I will see Buel next summer at the farm when we start a new year,” said Munier.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com