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Cotton industry in California seen smaller, stronger

California cotton acreage has plummeted faster than the first drop on a giant roller coaster, but do not expect an industry eulogy from Earl Williams, president of California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association (CCGGA).

Although California cotton acreage has fallen quicker than most expected, the industry may be stronger for it as California becomes a more specialized, even higher value cotton producing state, Williams told growers and Pest Control Advisers at the recent Cotton Technology Seminar sponsored by Bayer CropScience.

“The California cotton industry has certainly changed, but it is not down and out,” Williams said.

Acreage has gone from 760,00 in 2004 to 667,000 last year and it will likely not top 600,000 aces this season, according to Williams.

Most are predicting it will be at least a 50-50 split between Acala/upland and Pima this season. Last year there were 231,000 acres of long staple and 436,000 short staple. Acala/upland acreage is expected to decline sharply while Pima could exceed 350,000 this season with ideal planting weather. Many believe it will reach 400,000 acres within the next few years as the world market for American Pima continues to expand.

“We could see 60 percent of the acreage in Pima this season if there is a good planting season,” he said.

Growers are hopeful that will happen because of the strong Pima price of well over $1 per pound. Phytogen, the largest supplier of Pima in the valley, has already shipped more Pima seed to growers this season than last year a month before the '06 planting season begins, therefore, growers are poised to reach that 350,000 acres. However, April 15 is considered the cutoff date for planting the longer season Pima. After that, growers will likely switch to Acala or California Uplands.

California's cotton future is enveloped in Pima and it is bright for the ELS cotton. “There is room for expansion of Pima in the world. I get e-mails about Pima and it is absolutely astounding the people who are signing up for the branded Pima program,” said Williams.

CCGGA has recently signed an agreement to represent Pima in California.

Pima future bright

California Pima's future is brightened with the development of a new, faster roller gin stand by the USDA Cotton Ginning Lab in Mesilla Park, N.M., that is being tested now at a gin in Eastern Arizona. The stand has been clocked turning out almost five bales of cotton per hour. A conventional roller gin stand today turns out about one bale per hour.

“In an era when we think a 15 to 20 percent improvement is significant, we are talking about a 400 to 500 percent improvement” with this new gin stand. “This is tremendous.”

Commercialization of this gin stand would “make a huge difference in California.” It also could be an asset for Acala growers. Last season a significant amount of Acala was roller ginned and picked up seven to eight cents per pound premium over saw-ginned Acala. This was largely due to the high prices of Pima and textile mills substituting roller ginned Acala for Pima in some situations. However, faster, more economical ginning of Acala could open up new markets for Acala outside of Pima substitution.

Advances like the higher speed roller gin stand will be the type of advancements that will lead to what Williams called “specialized” California cotton production delivering premium quality cotton to world markets.

“California has had a reputation for producing good quality, high yielding cotton with a lot of certainty for years” and that is why Williams said the industry will sustain itself.

Exports have become the dominant market for U.S. cotton with the decline of the domestic textile industry. However, 85 percent of California's annual production has long been exported and that well positions California as American cotton shifts to a dominant exporter of cotton.

Seed production

Williams added that he also is bullish on California's cotton future because of its growing role as a seed producing area for the major U.S. seed companies. Also, the development of hybrid cotton to open up less than ideal ground to cotton production also bodes well for California's cotton future.

Cotton competes with a multitude of other crops in California whereas in other areas of the U.S. Cotton Belt there are far fewer alternatives and that is the primary reason acreage is declining in California and not in other areas where production costs are also less than California.

“We may be smaller, but I am not concerned about that. Our cotton varieties continue to improve” and that will ensure cotton's future in California.

“A few years ago two and a half and three bales was something to talk about. Two years ago four and five bales were not uncommon and I think that will be more common in the future,” he said.

“I feel good about where we are,” said Williams. “There have certainly been changes but that has not been something we have not talked about.

“We have had challenges in the past and met them and there are challenges to meet again. At the end of the day we may be smaller, but we will be stronger.”

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