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Accomplishments underscore crop improvement work in Arizona

Women love diamonds while crop farmers, men and women, value the confidence and integrity behind the blue tag of certified planting seed.

Those blue tags have become synonymous with Arizona where in Yuma in 1933 the Arizona Crop Improvement Association (ACIA) was formed. The group's first president, William Walton, the 33 presidents who succeeded him, and numerous board members since then have worked tirelessly toward the common passion — encouraging the production and use of high quality planting seed and improved cultural practices related to seed production to increase seed yields and profits.

“The ACIA has been a focal point for the adoption of pure seed standards, pure seed production, and quality seed whether varietal or mechanical in purity,” said Allan Simons, ACIA executive vice president for the past two decades. “It has created a level playing field in competition for the sale of varietal seed when everybody had the same varieties. Today, the ACIA certification tag is a confirmation of integrity in the seed industry,”

Seed enthusiasts gathered together in Tucson, Ariz., in January to celebrate the ACIA's anniversary.

Evidence of the organization's success is that most wheat and barley seed planted in Arizona is certified seed (now of privately released varieties) that has been field inspected, harvested, hauled, conditioned, tested, and stored according to certified seed requirements. The seed also meets minimum germination requirements and maximum limits of inert matter and of common weeds, if any are present.

Additional evidence is the abundance of Arizona seed — cotton, alfalfa, sorghum, sudangrass, and wheat just to name a few kinds — sold in the U.S. and internationally over several decades. The sizeable acreage required to meet that export demand has assisted many farmers in earning seed premiums, Simons said.

The ACIA began with 4,000 acres of mostly sorghum and alfalfa certified acres in 1933. By the early 1960s, bermudagrass joined the fold of abundant certified seed acreage. In 2007, acreage totaled 68,000 acres with cotton as king on over 44,000 certified acres. The all-time record acreage inspected for certified seed exceeded 102,000 in 1999.

Last season ACIA certified nearly 52 million pounds of seed including alfalfa, barley, bermudagrass, cotton, durum wheat, hybrid grain sorghum, oats, okra, safflower, sudangrass, and wheat. Noxious weed-free acres totaled 2,680 in alfalfa hay and wheat/barley straw. The ACIA issued about 910,000 certification labels last year.

Cotton planting seed is No. 1 due to its reputation for vigor and germination.

“We seldom encounter adverse weather conditions as the cotton seed matures. The end result is superior quality,” Simons said.

“While weather problems can hamper cottonseed quality in some states, Arizona-grown cottonseed has been an insurance policy for the seed supply for the Cotton Belt from east Texas to Georgia.”

During the 1980s and early 1990s, much of the certified seed production focused on red wheat. Production of Desert Durum, the proclaimed “Gem of the Southwest,” became significant with 4,000-6,000 seed acres planted annually — critical to the booming industry. In recent years, sudangrass has joined the fold with 6,000-10,000 acres producing a large tonnage of certified seed for both domestic and export markets.

Arizona's history of certified Pima cotton production between the 1950s and early 1990s deserves some credit for initiating the explosion of American Pima cotton acreage in the West. The development and maturation of the Pima or “Extra Long Staple” industry in Arizona helped smooth the transition to California production, with both Arizona and California Crop Improvement Associations playing significant roles in the maintenance of varietal purity during the transition period.

While Pima production in Arizona has been minimal in the last several years, Pima production in California achieved an estimated record high production of 760,000 480-pound bales in 2007, 11 percent above the 2006 crop. The yield of 1,419 pounds is the second highest yield on record.

Pima production became an instantaneous hit there when yields in California were 50 percent higher than Arizona, and Pima prices were significantly higher than San Joaquin Valley Acala cotton.”

Also, the adoption of an Arizona certified stock of common bermudagrass helped establish a quality standard for the species that was also adopted for production in California's Imperial Valley. Today, the majority of common bermudagrass seed production is California based, Simons said, although common seed is no longer certified.

From 1980 to 1995 certified red wheat seed from Arizona and California — primarily the ‘Yecora Rojo’ variety — was exported to Saudi Arabia. Large amounts were grown in the Imperial Valley and brought into Arizona for the certification tag, Simons explained. Virtually all of that export business shipped out of the Port of Long Beach, Calif.

Today, about 200 ACIA active members grow seed under contract for a handful of seed businesses.

A short-lived concern for the traditional “white” cottonseed industry in Arizona was the advent of ‘colored’ or brown cotton in the early 1990s. Colored cotton was deemed a risk if white and colored cotton varieties were grown too close together and became mixed. If that had occurred, mills would have rejected any bale of Arizona cotton that contained a tuff of cotton lint.

“As it turned out, the colored cotton industry didn't get off the ground and withered in three to four years,” Simons said. “What could have been a significant challenge trying to avoid contamination from colored cotton didn't materialize since the colored cotton industry in Arizona never thrived.”

Simons will step down from his ACIA manager role on March 31 and will be succeeded by the ACIA's certification specialist and foundation seed manager, Abed Anouti. However, Simons will continue part-time.

For his contributions to the group, 2007 ACIA President Pete Jepsen presented Simons with an ACIA Honorary Membership.

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