California Cotton Growers Association president Earl Williams believes in “getting in the game” whether it is in the halls of Congress or the state legislature or in the regulatory arena.

Williams does not shy away from battles, especially those where winning seems remote.

The latest charge he and association vice president Roger Isom are leading is to have agriculture represented in environmental litigation settlements. They have raised $140,000 to that end.

“We have to start a line of defense somewhere, and we have to have the ability, time and money to get in this game or continue to get our heads handed to us,” Williams told the annual meeting of the growers association in Visalia, Calif. recently.

The area Williams is talking about is lawsuits brought by environmental groups to stop progress or force a settlement from a federal or state agency because government agencies have erred in implementing the law or missed a deadline.

As a non-party to such cases, settlements often have adverse effects on agriculture.

The money Isom and Williams have raised will allow agriculture to legally intervene in such cases and have a seat at the negotiating table where settlements are hammered out.

The 14-member coalition Williams and Isom have formed cuts across many different commodities and industry groups, local valley Farm Bureau chapters, citizens groups and a water district.

‘Get in game’

“Thank goodness, we have found enough groups in our industry that say enough is enough. Let's get in the game,” he said.

“So, we're in. More will join and maybe this will become the coming together of many more ag groups that realize the vital importance and the serious need for agriculture to come together if we are to survive this onslaught of legal contests,” Williams said.

Legal entanglements were just one of the challenges Williams said cotton and California agriculture face.

State workers compensation is on the “front burner” today as “another example of deregulation and the wreck that has followed. So far there have been endless legislative fixes that do not work and only serve to kill businesses and lose jobs. “Most folks in Sacramento do not have a clue. We're living in a very tenuous and serious economic times in this state and unfortunately little recovery can realistically be expected in the near future,” Williams lamented.

On a purely cotton note, sticky cotton emerged over the past two seasons as a serious threaten to the high quality the San Joaquin Valley cotton industry. Considerable progress was made in 2002 to mitigate the problem. However, Williams continues to hammer home his “No Sticky Cotton” message and promises to do so until there are USDA classing standards for sticky cotton.

“We must remain vigilant,” he heralded while praising the University of California and major cotton merchandizing firms for their efforts in greatly reducing the problem and calling attention to the seriousness of it last year. “The call went out, and I'm proud of the industry's coming together,” he added.

Seed coat fragments

The latest internal challenge to California cotton was widespread seed coat fragments in lint last season. It has been a contentious issue during this winter with many unfairly pointing toward gins as being responsible for not getting the seed coat fragments out of the seed cotton.

Williams said gins should not be expected to solve the problem by “over ginning” cotton and jeopardizing SJV fiber quality.

He said the problem is with a single variety. He did not name it; however, it is widely known to be the Roundup Ready Acala Riata.

The dilemma is that many growers continue to plant the variety because it is high yielding and chance a seed coat fragment classing office discount grade.

Williams said growers who plant the variety must accept the potential problem and accept discounts and not expect gins to spend extra money “to correct the problem and create another” in over ginning and damaging fiber.

He said the ultimate solution is identifying varieties with potential seed cost problems while they are still being tested by the San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board and not releasing them as approved Acala varieties.

“I'm confident we can get this done — move beyond politics — blame and finger pointing. Let's get on with what is best for our entire industry and that is a future based on our high quality cottons without these types of problems,” he said.

Challenges have never been greater, but Williams said the volunteer growers association remains strong with almost 100 percent participation statewide. “It's no time to pull it in. It's time to let it out. It's no time to step back. It's time to step up,” said Williams.

Crop acres drop

California cotton acreage fell to its lowest level in decades last season and is expected to drop even further this season. Nevertheless, Williams believes that California “has a bright future in the cotton business.

Citing record breaking California average yields last season and continued output of the finest cotton in America, “if cotton production leaves the U.S., California will be the one that will turn out the lights,” he chided.

“Even in the face of all the challenges we have as compared to other production areas in the U.S. and the world, we still have many advantages, if properly managed and properly utilized, will keep us in the game,” said Williams.

Cotton is now bolstered by a strong federal farm program and that draws criticism from other agricultural groups in the state. To that Williams says, “Get over it.

“For the ones that brag about they don't need farm programs, I say your time is coming,” he said.

Trade deals continually open U.S. borders to foreign competition, and Williams predicts other commodity groups will eventually seek federal farm support “when pitted against the underlying and indirect subsidies of the importing countries to which the U.S. kowtows today,” he said.

Williams exhorted agriculture to remain vigilant to hold to “decent” federal farm policy now in place today and against U.S. trade policy that has and continues to “sell the American farmer down the river for the sake of trade.

“There's no time to blink; there's no time to sleep; there's no doubting what to do,” he said, challenging agriculture and his associations' members to support organizations that are “in the game.”

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com