Remember the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse? Famine, Pestilence, Destruction, and Earl Williams.
Williams, the venerable, and often painfully straightforward president of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations, has been traversing San Joaquin Valley on a pale horse, preaching a doctrine of impending doom unless growers and ginners stop sloughing off sticky SJV cotton on textile mills.
Beneath the trees in the summer heat, in gin seed barns, coffee shops and storage buildings, Williams is harshly admonishing growers and ginners alike with unabashed evangelical fervor to repent or watch the valley's cotton industry die like a fly stuck on sticky flypaper.
The day of reckoning has come, according to Williams. No longer can the valley's cotton industry ignore that sticky cotton comes from the San Joaquin Valley. It has happened before last year. However, 2002 became the enough-already year.
“We have had sticky cotton in the past in specific areas. Our approach has been to ignore it and sure enough it went away,” he said. No more. “The sticky cotton situation that occurred last year has put the industry in serious jeopardy.”
Growers may have ignored it, but mills didn't. Williams cited an incident last year when valley growers visited Far East mills on a trade mission. On the wall of a mill was a San Joaquin Valley map. A line had been drawn along Nevada Avenue in the central part of the valley. Asked what that meant, the grower was told that mill buyers have been instructed not to buy cotton from gins south of that line because of the fear of getting more sticky cotton.
Mills around the world have put the valley on notice; clean up your act or face the consequences of discounted cotton or worse, losing its reputation as a premium quality production area that has taken eight decades to develop and maintain.
“We have never wanted to admit the fact we have sticky cotton because we did not want to get the reputation of Arizona and Imperial. But what has happened in those areas is happening to San Joaquin Valley cotton,” said Williams.
It has become so serious that merchants are reporting mills are not forward contracting for 2002 SJV cotton until they can be assured it is non-sticky. Forward contracting has been the cornerstone of Western cotton marketing.
If San Joaquin Valley producers and ginners do not clean up their cotton, in two years there will be a sticky cotton measuring device at the end of the cotton classing line at the USDA classing office in Visalia. Tacked on the wall above that device will be a discount table to let the classers determine how much the producer of that sticky cotton must suffer financially, predicts Williams.
It either “self-policing” now to curtail the problem or that unwanted future.
Decision at hand
And, the invitation call to atone for past sticky cotton is not a long one: six weeks. Whitefly and aphid pressure this season, along with most pests, has been non-existent to this point. However, the honeydew-secreting scourges of cotton lint are beginning to increase in numbers in parts of the valley.
These insects suck juices from the plant and secret honeydew on the lint, making it sticky.
University of California Extension entomologist and IPM specialist Pete Goodell said scouting and treating any outbreaks is critical.
“We have to watch our fields closely until pickers roll,” said Goodell. “We have a good suite of products available, including some new products like Centric and Assail, which have worked well against both whitefly and aphids in other areas of the country.”
Williams promises emergency California registration for Furadan will be forthcoming soon for inexpensive, late season aphid cleanup.
Goodell said the most critical time this season may well be the 14 to 31 days between the time cotton is treated with defoliant and picked.
Last year sticky cotton reports were not widespread until the bales hit mills. “There were not many reports of problems last year from growers, PCAs and ginners. I don't think people were trying to hide anything, but we may have had a late season problem (with whiteflies and aphids in defoliated or late-season cotton) we have not dealt with before.”
Pre-harvesting plant conditioning and defoliants do not control insects, Goodell and Williams point out. Leaves do not drop immediately after defoliation, said Goodell, and lint could be exposed to whitefly and aphid honeydew for as long as 30 days after defoliant is applied.
Madera County Farm Advisor Ron Vargas also points out that regrowth is a haven for late-season aphids.
“Terminate the crop when it needs to be terminated; do not carry the crop late when there are more opportunities to expose open lint to insects,” said Goodell.
Retention rates in SVJ cotton has been nothing short of phenomenal this season, and it may be advisable to settle for a bottom and middle crop, not pushing cotton late for that top crop, said UC state cotton specialist Bob Hutmacher.
Late irrigations and foliar nitrogen for making a top crop as well as residual N may push the crop too late and make it susceptible to stickiness from insects, he said.
Hutmacher said under ideal heat unit conditions, it takes about 45 days for a flower to become a harvestable boll and that gets even longer after Aug. 1. For example, he said an Aug. 1 bloom at Shafter will become a harvestable boll around Sept. 15-30. An Aug. 8 flower will not become a harvestable boll until Oct. 5; Aug. 16 not until Oct. 22.
And, if weather turns colder than normal, that 45 days can stretch into 65 to 70 days.
“The San Joaquin Valley cotton industry needs to get serious about sticky cotton,” said Williams, who said many gins are warning growers now that they may be penalized for delivering sticky cotton. Last year sticky cotton slowed down ginning 30-80 percent.
More importantly, said Williams, gins with two or three growers who deliver sticky cotton make it bad for the remaining clean producers.
Gins are being blackballed by mills because of SJV stickiness.
“I have had ginners tell me they cannot afford to turn away growers. I tell them to send those growers down the road to another gin because you cannot afford to jeopardize a gin's reputation,” he said.
Williams said mills can process sticky cotton, if they know it is sticky. What is irritating mills and threatening SJV cotton is the practice of sloughing off sticky cotton onto unwitting mills. “Mills buy sticky cotton — at a heavy discount — and can utilize it, but when they don't know about it, it raises havoc with them and they don't like that.”
Williams said lenders are being educated about the problem because last season some refused to give growers money for late-season pest treatments.
“We are telling lenders if a grower cannot get the $15 to $35 per acre it takes to protect cotton late season, this not only jeopardizes the industry, it also is putting the individual farmer's whole crop at risk,” said Williams.
The solution will be self-policing, said Williams.
“If what I say offends you, I apologize. If what I say offends you, you also may be the people were are looking for with our message,” said Williams.
“We don't need sticky cotton producers in the San Joaquin Valley. We need zero tolerance this year,” he said.