When a rodeo cowboy gets on a soon-to-be-bucking horse and waits, tensely, for the gate to open, his friends and fellow riders often tell him to “Cowboy up.”

It's a way of encouraging him to hang tough and to hang on for as long as possible no matter how high the horse jumps or how hard he tries to throw him out of the saddle and onto the dirt.

Earl Williams says it may be time for California's cotton farmers and industry members to begin giving each other similar encouragement as they prepare for what promises to be a wild ride in 2006 and in the years to come.

Speaking at the Central Coast Cotton Conference in Shell Beach, Calif., Williams said he had been following rodeos since his days as a college student at California Polytechnic University in nearby San Luis Obispo. He remembered the phrase “Cowboy up” from those days

“When things get tough, and the riders get in that bucking chute and get strapped on, and all their friends are patting them on the back and shouting encouragement, they tell them to ‘Cowboy up,’” Williams said.

“I think that with the challenges we face today, we need to have something we can use to shout some encouragement to all the different folks in our industry,” he added. “So I came up with the idea that maybe we ought to start using this phrase that we've got to ‘Cotton up.’”

Williams, president of the California Cotton Growers' Association, was referring to predictions that the state's cotton plantings could total 550,000 acres in 2006. That would be down from 1,175,000 acres in 1994 and 667,000 in 2005.

“The first talk I gave in this job that I have today was right here in this room 12 years ago, speaking to a ginners' group,” he said. “We were talking about the challenges before this industry. Back then, in January 1994, we had 1,175,000 acres of cotton in California, 1,094,000 of short staple and 81,000 acres of Pima.

“This past year, with this sorry crop that we just got through harvesting, we had 667,000 acres, 436,000 of short staple and 231,000 of Pima. Next year, the projection is for 550,000 acres, evenly divided between 275,000 acres of upland cotton and 275,000 of Pima.”

He and other industry leaders predicted 10 years ago that California's cotton acreage would decline over the next decade. “Unfortunately,” he said, “we're getting to 500,000 acres a lot quicker than we expected.”

More engaged

The latest round of acreage reductions and environmental and trade problems means growers and industry members must become more engaged. “Numbers mean everything to us whether it's dealing with Sacramento or Washington or trade policy,” Williams said. “We need to get engaged and support our leaders.”

The cotton industry also needs to better itself. “We need to get educated and stay informed and be ready to adapt to change. This industry is changing. I don't need to tell you that. That's the theme of this conference. The one's that don't Cotton up I can only predict that they're going to cotton out. I hope fewer and fewer cotton out and more and more Cotton up.

“Change has always been with us, and it usually makes the industry better. There are fewer of us, but the ones that are left are the best.”

When he spoke to the ginner group in 1994, California had 58 ginning organizations — 120 cotton gins and 12 roller gins. Today, the state has 37 ginning organizations — 65 cotton gins and 20 roller gins.

“So what's going on in this industry today should not be a big surprise,” he said. “We talked about it a long time ago. Gin consolidation? It had to come, and we're better off for it. Economies of scale make larger gins more practical, and this is going to continue. We'll see more consolidation.”

With all the “excitement” over Pima, Williams predicted the state would see more roller gins in its future. “I just hope we don't rush too quick or too far. Arizona did it and suffered for it.”

Williams talked about the challenges in Sacramento, Washington and on the international front, focusing specifically on the farm bill and the National Cotton Council. “I never speak to a cotton group without mentioning the National Cotton Council,” he noted. “The strength of the council is that we bring all seven segments together and deliver the same message in Washington.”

Farm bill working

The farm bill is working, he said, saving the government $17 billion in its first two years. “Farm spending is less than 1 percent of the total federal budget, but you would think we had robbed Fort Knox judging from the criticism we receive.”

Although the phrase may be new to them, California cotton industry members have been “Cottoning Up” in many areas over the years, Williams said. “It's how we've survived. That's why we're a great industry today and why I think we're going to continue to be a great industry.

“It will be a different industry,” he noted. “We've had challenges as our industry has changed, and we've had to better ourselves in the way we grow cotton, how we harvest cotton, handle cotton, gin cotton, store cotton, manufacture cotton and market cotton

California has led the nation in variety development and will continue to do so, he said. “The quality of California cotton and the yields of California cotton have been unmatched in the United States. And we have to continue going down that road.”

California's cotton breeders must continue developing varieties that are adaptable, that fit growers' needs. “Let the growers make the decisions. Give the growers a choice, and they will make the right decisions,” he said.

Cultural practices are also changing. “We're seeing more minimum tillage and more narrow row cotton,” he noted. “(Grower) Dan Burns and (University of California Farm Advisor) Bruce Roberts have been working on this.”

California growers were some of the first to use Global Positioning Systems or GPS. Producers have embraced GMOs or biotechnology. “Today 40 to 50 percent of the cotton in California contains biotechnology, and it's going to continue to grow while other industries sit around and wonder what to do.”

Pest control and resistance management are other areas where California has been one of the leaders in the country, primarily due to the efforts of the Cooperative Extension Service. “It's a doggone shame that the university doesn't support the Cooperative Extension Service,” Williams said. “We support them, and they need others' support.”

Cotton producers have much to be proud of, but growers tend to forget some of those things when the industry is under attack the way it has been in recent years, he said.

“We need to get some of the pride back that used to be in this industry,” he noted. “So I hope that all of you will join with me tonight and start cottoning up and patting your fellow industry people on the back and calling on them to Cotton up.”

Cotton industry members should “start patting one another on the back and reminding each other that we have an industry worth fighting for. We're all under stress, we're all under attack, and we've got to Cotton up.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com