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Cotton no longer king in West, but agriculture continues to grow

Each Farm Press editorial year begins with a gathering of most Farm Press editors at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences. I join editors from Delta, Southwest and Southeast Farm Press publications for extensive coverage of the largest gathering each January of the U.S. cotton industry.

This year Beltwide returns to New Orleans.

About a month before Beltwide, a conference program arrives in the mail. This allows each Farm Press editor to select the key presentations focusing on our geographic areas to cover for articles in our respective publications. California and Arizona have never dominated Beltwide like Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and other traditional Cotton Belt states. Nevertheless, the West typically manages a good showing.

This year, however, you could paste the program on a wall and throw darts at it and never hit a presentation from the West. Fewer than two dozen presentations from the hundreds scheduled over the four-day conference are from Westerners. The reason is California and Arizona are no longer big U.S. cotton players.

Where 2 million acres of cotton once grew, there were fewer than 800,000 acres produced in California and Arizona in 2006. In Arizona, cotton has been displaced by urban sprawl and alfalfa and other forage crops for a growing dairy industry.

In California, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, grapes in some areas, alfalfa and corn have taken cotton ground.

Cotton is on the decline, but Western agriculture is not. During the period when more than 1 million acres of cotton disappeared, the combined value of Arizona and California agriculture has increased by about $7 billion to a combined total of more than $36 billion.

Despite onerous regulations, agriculturally-ignorant legislators and unrelenting competition for land and water resources, Western agriculture has never had a higher dollar value.

Farming in California and Arizona is undergoing a very rapid transformation to keep pace with unforgiving farming costs in arguably one of the most ideal farming climates. The changes have been almost breathtaking.

It is not just the rapidly changing crop mix from low value, government-supported crops like cotton to high value crops like vegetables and trees and vines. Only about 9 percent of the farm income in California's $32 billion agricultural economy is from government support. The federal farm bill is important to California, but far less than it once was.

There also is an unprecedented technological revolution going on in Western agriculture.

Tractor fleets are equipped with satellite guidance systems. Aerial imaging coupled with variable rate technology is being adapted to many operations. Precision drip irrigation is not just for trees and vines or high value crops any more. It is being rapidly adopted for all field crops to give farmers higher yields through micro irrigation and improved nutrient and pest management. The technological basket is overflowing right now.

As Beltwide 2007 arrives with a sharp focus on cotton, the changes in Western agriculture are even more evident. Cotton deserves credit for carrying California and Arizona agriculture to this day, but it is a far different future ahead than what farming has seen in the past. Fortunately, it is a bright future. Cotton will share in that future, just no longer as king.

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