One shipload of Australian fuzzy cottonseed docked at the Port of Stockton, Calif., a week ago and another laden with the same commodity is on the high seas headed for the same port. There should be many more to follow bringing more than 325,000 tons of cottonseed from Down Under for California dairy rations.

California cotton producers and ginners are trying to turn back the ships. They claim the cargoes could contain new races of fusarium wilt that pose a dangerous threat to the California cotton industry. However, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is not inclined to turn the ships around largely because Australian cottonseed has been imported into California for at least four years, and the new races were identified there eight years ago.

While the cotton industry contends the potential for a pest invasion is the primary focus of its complaints, there is more at stake than just a serious wilt. There are big dollars — almost $50 million. That's what this year's Australian cottonseed imports represent.

California cotton growers and ginners contend those are dollars taken from their financially strapped business. Mike Nicoletti, president of the Penny Newman Grain Co., the chief importer of the cottonseed, said he is only filling a market void.

“There is a demand of 400,000 more tons of cottonseed than there will be seed available this year from Acala or upland cottons,” said Nicoletti.

Spread in Australia

Dollars have taken a public back seat to the disease issue. The fusarium wilt races Californians are concerned about are soil borne and have never before been identified. Unlike the fusarium found now in the San Joaquin Valley cotton producing area, these two races do not need nematodes to spread. Discovered first in 1993 in Australia, the fusarium races have spread rapidly to six of the 10 production areas of eastern Australia.

Nicoletti contends less than 1 percent of the Australian crop is affected by the races. California cotton growers cite the words of Australian plant pathologists who say growers and ginners contend the new races pose “the most important constraint to sustainable cotton production in Australia to have developed in recent years.”

The races are common in heavy Australian soils, textures not commonly associated with fusarium wilt now in the valley. It is typically associated with sandy soils here because that is where nematodes are traditionally found. That is only heightening concerns in California.

The Australian races kill seedling cotton early in the season and can kill cotton season-long. It has become so severe that cotton is no longer a cropping option in some fields. The Australian government has imposed stringent sanitation practices to prevent people and machinery from spreading the wilt.

James DeVay, plant pathology professor emeritus at University of California, Davis and Dick Garber, a retired UC plant pathologist who did much of the early work on nematode-vectored fusarium in the San Joaquin Valley, both say the Australian fusarium races pose a major threat to SJV cotton production.

The Australian fusarium races, said DeVay, are “highly pathogenic on cotton varieties and are causing great concern to farmers in Australia.

“The possibility exists that seed infected by the fungal pathogen may end up in field soils and thus initiate an epidemic of this new cotton disease in California,” he added.

Nicoletti points out that the cottonseed is fumigated with methyl bromide in Australia before it's imported into California each year. However, the California cotton industry is challenging the efficacy of that as well as the scientific date Nicoletti has submitted to CDFA showing that the wilt does not pass through the rumen of animals fed infected seed.

The challenge comes four years after Penny Newman began importing the seed and in the wake of reports at the Beltwide Cotton Conference in Anaheim, Calif., from Australian scientists this year reporting the soil borne fusarium continues to spread rapidly there.

Questioning findings

Earl Williams, president and CEO of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations, says world-renowned California plant pathologists like Garber and DeVay are questioning the thoroughness of the research findings Nicoletti and the Australians are presenting

Nicoletti asked University of Arkansas plant pathologist Craig Rothrock to look at the issue and Rothrock says the USDA minimum methyl bromide standard…“is sufficient” to kill the Australian fusarium races.

DeVay points out that Rothrock's literature review covered many crops, but found “little information” the effects of methyl bromide on fusarium. “It is questionable whether or not the fungus remains viable within seed from diseased plants (after fumigation),” said DeVay.

Williams and DeVay also dispute the Australian scientists who contend fusarium-infected seed fed to dairy animals cannot pass through the animal into manure or dairy lagoon water.

“When fed to cattle some of the seed is undigested and passes through the animal,” said DeVay. “The possibility exists that seed infected by the fungal pathogen may end up in fields and thus initiate an epidemic of the new cotton disease in California.”

And, maybe elsewhere since California has become a source of planting seed of other cotton growing areas in the U.S.

Delta and Pine Land Co. has stopped importing seed from Australia into the U.S. because of concern over the wilt getting into its planting seed produced there.

However, unfumigated planting seed grown in Australia has been imported into California, according to Nicoletti. Aventis FiberMax varieties were imported and distributed by California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors.

“It was acid delinted, but as CDFA points out, that process to control pests is now less than 90 percent effective,” said Nicoletti.

More than 5,000 acres were planted to FiberMax varieties last year and additional acreage before that. Since the varieties were so-called “California Uplands,” the fields were registered with CDFA. The University of California has been asked to develop a method to test those FiberMax fields for the fusarium races.

CCGGA is “disappointed” that CDFA has refused to stop the shipments, said Williams.

However, Williams and others met with California Secretary of Agriculture Bill Lyons, asking him to reconsider.

‘Unacceptable’

The only concession the department made in its refusal to stop shipments was to seek data from large-scale fumigation trials under way in Australia.

Williams said CDFA's logic that stopping shipments now after the fact is “beyond my belief and comprehension and is totally unacceptable to my industry.”

Nicoletti had heard no complaints about the possible spread of the wilt from the imported seed until this year. “I think it had a lot to do with what was heard at the Beltwide conference. However, I do not think the concern is unreasonable,” he added. He believes CDFA's should ask for additional fumigation information.

“However, I also believe it is also an economic issue,” he said. “If the shipments are stopped, there is not enough upland seed in the state to fill the need. However, it would dramatically increase the value of California seed.”

The controversy over the wilt has already had an impact. Local cottonseed seed prices have increased about $20 per ton with the underlying fear that the Australian supply may get cut off.

California cottonseed marketers point out that there is a one-million-ton cottonseed market in the state, and Australian product represents a third of that market. However, a large portion of the California cottonseed is from Pima cotton, and many dairymen do not want to feed it.

“I don't fully understand it, but it is a nutritional and reproductive issue with dairymen,” said Nicoletti, adding, however, that he believes “Pima will gain in acceptance for a variety of reason. One is value. When supplies were tight last year and the year before, there was a $60-per-ton spread between upland and Pima seed. That is value to a dairyman.”

Strong U.S. dollar

Even more of the California cottonseed supply this season will be Pima with a hefty increase in Extra Long Staple cotton acreage. Nicoletti said that is why there will be more than 300,000 tons imported this season vs. 250,000 tons last year.

California cottonseed marketers contend the strong American dollar used to buy Australian cottonseed combined with the volume imported drives down the market value of California seed. The American dollar is roughly twice as valuable as the Australian dollar.

“Australians are very keen on the currency differential, and cottonseed in Australia is trading for $200 per ton,” counters Nicoletti, who said he goes after Australian cottonseed to fill the need of dairymen rather than getting it from other states because it is easier for him to ship cottonseed from Australia than to buy it from other cotton producing U.S. states and rail ship it to California.

Whether it's disease or price, the California cotton industry does not want the seed in here, and Williams has vowed to continue lobbying CDFA to stop its importation.

Williams calls CDFA's rational “beyond my belief and comprehension and totally unacceptable to my industry.

“I'm sure the California grape industry wishes the Australian government had applied the same irrational logic (as CDFA) when it stopped the shipments of table grapes into their country because of the threat of the glassy-winged sharpshooter,” chided Williams, who points out that the sharpshooter has been in California for several years during which time California table grapes were shipped to Australia.”

If there is a threat a of glassy-winged sharpshooter infestation in Australia, “they're probably already infected so what's the problem with continuing to allow imports. This logic makes no sense for other countries, why should it be allowed in California?”

e-mail: harry_cline@intertec.com