Last season was not stellar for Kern County, Calif., cotton producer Chris Vandborg and his fellow San Joaquin Valley producers.
Average upland yields were off about 175 pounds statewide from the year before, and Pima was down about 100 pounds.
For Vandborg, his average last season was 2.4 bales from 800 acres. For two seasons prior to 2003, he ginned three-bale crops. The difference was a late start under cool wet conditions and excessive summer heat last year.
The Arvin-Lamont area producer in the far southern end of the San Joaquin Valley looks for a rebound this year. Prices are improving and the snow covered Sierra Nevada to the east of his 1,200 acres means that the water supply outlook early is good. Combine the two and Vandborg and his fellow producers are optimistic.
“We can do OK economically with three-bale crops,” said the diversified farmer who also produces potatoes, carrots, onions, alfalfa and wine grapes. He grew 800 acres of Phytogen 72 last season and plans to plant about the same this year. Most forecasters, however, are looking for about 10 percent increase in valley upland acreage.
“Cotton has been good for us. We can make money with good yields, and I like the rotation cotton gives us. We get our best potatoes behind cotton,” he explained. It cleans up the ground of unwanted pathogens for potato production. Onions also follow cotton.
However, it is getting tougher to profit from cotton, not necessarily all from increasing production costs. It is the regulatory costs that are hurting cotton farmers and businessmen alike.
“California workers' comp costs are killing us,” Vandborg repeats a familiar refrain.
Hopefully, California's new governor can make a difference there. In the meantime, Vandborg has made a major change in how he markets his cotton in hopes of gaining added income to offset rising costs.
He has joined the San Joaquin Valley Quality Cotton Growers Association and now markets his cotton through the association's exclusive marketing agent, Weil Brothers.
California SJV Acala has a world reputation for premium quality fiber properties, but that reputation has been sullied a bit of late by a sticky cotton stigma that exploded three seasons back. Industry leaders viewed it as a huge threat to the valley's reputation and it launched an all-out campaign to get growers to take care of the problem by scouting and controlling silverleaf whiteflies. It was very successful.
Vandborg has been taking care of whiteflies long before the big campaign was launched. Southern Kern County was the first area of the valley to experience serious infestations in the early 1990s of the silverleaf whitefly, the primary culprit in sticky cotton.
Vandborg has “worked hard” to produce clean cotton from the onset of high whitefly numbers. However, he does not believe he has been rewarded until now for his efforts.
“Whitefly is a pest that often comes in late. Just before defoliation and it is tough to spray then,” said Vandborg. If a producer has battled lygus and mites all season and then has to unravel the budget at the end of the season for another insect spray, it is a tough call. However, Vandborg has never hesitated if it meant the difference between clean and sticky cotton.
“Sticky cotton can gum up the works in a textile mill so badly that they have to cut cotton off the spools. We have also had problems at the gin ginning sticky cotton,” said Vandborg, who wants no part of those problems with his cotton.
The San Joaquin Valley Quality Cotton Growers Association was created initially to assure mills that they would get only Acala cotton from the association after the valley was opened up to all varieties. That guarantee was expanded to offer a non-sticky cotton guarantee.
Vandborg became a member this year to hopefully gain a financial incentive for his efforts to deliver clean cotton to the textile mill.
The association backs that guarantee by requiring growers to sign an agreement that they will:
Use strict management practices designed to prevent foreign contamination in cotton.
Prevent stickiness with regular field-by-field monitoring by licensed pest control advisers using University of California thresholds to treat for insects that cause stickiness.
Submit their production records to the association offices for documentation, an essential step in verifying that quality assurance practices are being strictly followed.
Only cottons from those fields that have been protected from contamination from whitefly and aphid will earn the trademarked “SJV Quality Cotton” brand.
Vandborg likes the idea of a third-party substantiation of what he does to protect his cotton.
“I have no problem with verification of what I do. It costs me at least one extra spray and sometimes two or more to protect against whitefly,” said Vandborg. He wants mills to know that about the bales that carry his name. “Hopefully this clean cotton certification through the association will bring sales earlier and better opportunities to get more for our cotton.”
The association now has 105 grower-members marketing cotton through Weil Brothers and the association either through a pool or cash payments. Vandborg, a former Calcot grower, is in the pool.
It has become easier in the past few years for Vandborg and his peers to control whitefly with the insect growth regulators. The IGRs were registered in California largely through the efforts of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations.
“In the early days when we first saw whitefly, we would spray four or five times with what we had available then and we still could not control them,” said Greg Palla, a cotton producer and also director of operations and association grower services for Weil Brothers. “With the insect growth regulators we now have, we get much better control.”
Sticky cotton has not gone away as an issue or in reality. Arizona was the first the whitefly/sticky cotton exploded. The IGRs saved the day there and marketers have worked hard to overcome that stigma. However, no one is foolish enough to say the problem has disappeared there or in California.
“A report from the state pink bollworm people said whiteflies continue to spread. Whiteflies were heavier in the northern end of the valley this year than in years past,” said Palla. Some of the earliest whitefly control sprays were in Kings County not in Southern Kern County.
Growers generally are doing a good job of controlling whitefly. However, if there is sticky cotton now, marketers make sure they do not unknowingly ship sticky cotton to a textile mill.
Machine as guard
Weil Brothers and the SJV quality cotton group have invested $150,000 in insurance in the form of a Lintronics fiber testing machine that not only measures for stickiness, but neps, trash and seed coat fragments.
“There are only two of these machines in the U.S., but many of the textile mills in the world have them. They represent a reliable standard for testing for stickiness,” said Palla. Every bale of Weil Brothers/SJV quality cotton association cotton is sampled through the machine and recorded on a computer.
Palla said textile mills are recognizing the association as a pro-active grower group wanting to guarantee what producers do in the field results in only premium quality cotton.
The fledgling association has already been rewarded for its effort with a $228,000 value-added product development grant from USDA to assist in marketing the branded cotton into the international textile mill market.
Palla said the grant is the only one in the cotton industry based upon high quality assurance with objective fiber measurement.
The association also has been invited to make a presentation before the International Textile Manufacturer's Federation annual meeting in Dresden, Germany about what it is doing to assure quality. And finally, the association has contributed $100,000 to Cotton Council International to support promoting SJV cotton in the international trade.
Crop fits rotation
“I see cotton as being part of my operation for a long time. It fits my rotation and as long as we can maintain high yields, there will be profit in it,” said Vandborg. “But the quality must be there to maintain the valley's prominent place in the international marketplace.”
California and Arizona cotton has long been an export commodity, with well above 80 percent going into world channels each season. With the collapse of the domestic textile industry, the rest of the U.S. Cotton Belt is now focused on world markets.
“Where the U.S. once sold two-thirds of its crop domestically and one-third into exports, that is now reversed,” said Palla.
“I don't think there will any major changes in the way Western cotton is marketed. It is the rest of the belt that will have to adjust, said Palla.
That means more competition for Western growths in the world market from the U.S. than ever before. While the U.S. is trying to raise the fiber quality bar with varieties like FiberMax, SJV Acala is still head of the class.
“What we do not need is to get a bad stickiness reputation. That would really hurt California in competing with lesser quality growths,” said Palla.
“Our growers have made the commitment financially to make sure that does not happen,” said Palla.
“I think the future looks good for SJV logoed cotton,” said Vandborg.