Row and field crop choices boil down to rotation, and for Bowles Farming Company near Los Banos, Calif., cotton provides sustainability to a system that includes a host of crops.
Cannon Michael is the sixth generation of Bowles and Lawrence families to work in the family farming business, which today includes an 11,500-acre enterprise in the northern San Joaquin Valley that varies between 2,000 acres and 3,000 acres of extra-long staple cotton in rotational plantings.
Cotton varieties include Phytogen 881, Deltapine 341, and an upland/pima hybrid called Hazera 1432. The Hazera is graded as an ELS cotton with slightly less strength than pima, leading it to trade about 10-20 cents less than pima, though it can produce better than pima.
Michael likes Hazera in his region because the climate tends to be cooler, with fewer heat units, than locations farther south in the Valley. Hazera tends to do well under these conditions because it is a shorter-season cotton than pima. The shorter growing season stretches the limits of pima varieties, though in years like the most-recent, the extended summer and rainless fall made conditions near-perfect for growing all varieties of cotton in California.
Michael is the president of Bowles Farming Company, and is the great-great-great grandson of Henry Miller, who together with Charles Lux built land holdings of over one million acres in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When Miller-Lux broke up in the 1960s, Michael’s grandfather and great-uncle started Bowles Farming Company.
Today Michael is a champion of environmental stewardship, sustainable production, and the ethical treatment of his employees as he continues to farm adjacent to a large area of environmental significance that includes a federal wildlife refuge and 650 acres of wetland habitat that Bowles Farming owns and manages.
In recognition of his commitment to cotton and environmental sustainability, Cannon Michael has been named the 2019 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award winner for the western states. He will be recognized at an awards breakfast held in conjunction with the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show at Memphis, Tenn., March 1-2.
RECORD COTTON YIELDS
California cotton growers in 2018 reported record yields as warm summer temperatures lingered through harvest, but failed to produce the profit-robbing heat that can limit production. Like many of his peers, Michael exceeded four bales per acre across all his varieties — a record for him.
Matt Toste, manager of Pacific Ginning Company at Huron, where Michael sends his cotton, gin averages were 1 bale to 1.25 bales higher compared to the previous year. Lint quality was good, with no reports of sticky cotton issues. “It’s pretty rare for us to have everything go over four bales,” Michael says. While the Hazera variety he grows tends to lead production, this year his pima varieties yielded similarly to the hybrid variety.
An outspoken advocate for intelligent water policy, Michael does so from the platform of a senior water rights holder in a region blessed with the ability to provide quality irrigation supplies from the federal Central Valley Project to those with permanent water rights predating 1914.
He currently chairs the San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority board, an organization with 29 member agencies representing a combined two million acres of land that includes farms, environmental, and urban uses. He also sits on his local San Luis Canal Company board, which services 100 percent of his cotton acreage. “I’ve been more vocal on the value of agriculture in general, and the fact that everyone relies on farmers every day,” he says.
He is also active with various other associations. He previously chaired the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association and the Cotton Foundation, serves on the California Cotton Alliance and Cotton Incorporated, and previously served on the National Cotton Council and the San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board.
Michael, 46, and his wife of 18 years, Heidi, have three sons: Nick (17), Luke (15), and Drake (13). When not on the farm, the family is active in church giving and fundraising. With three boys in high school, Michael says much of his time away from the farm “is centered on our children as they go through their teenage years.”
NO AG BACKGROUND
Though farming is in Michael’s blood, he didn’t always produce crops. Prior to returning to the farm in 1998 under the leadership of his uncle, Phillip Bowles, he was an English major at University of California, Berkeley, and later in the mid-1990s worked in commercial real estate in Atlanta. “I didn’t have an ag background, other than the family being in the farming business,” he says. “I grew up in the Bay Area, and I would come down to the farm with my grandfather quite a bit when I was young. In high school, I worked summers on the farm.”
Because of the state’s Mediterranean climate that typically provides rain and snow only during an abbreviated winter period, California has a unique ability to grow high-quality cotton, Michael says. Farming practices borne from a strong desire to grow the best product possible, while meeting the strictest regulatory requirements in the nation, is an opportunity that farmers should not squander, he believes.
“The U.S. has a good story to tell about cotton production. Certainly, California has as well, and even though regulations are hard on us, it helps our story.” For instance, he says, retailers and manufacturers wanting to market cotton grown with careful, sustainable practices that don’t exploit children or labor in general should look to the U.S. cotton industry for ethical production practices.
“You get these big retailers trying to sell all these two-dollar t-shirts, but consumers sometimes don’t connect their desire to buy inexpensive shirts with cotton produced in areas where they’re not doing the right thing. That’s a threat to me, because people might not understand where things are coming from and how their dollars translate. Everybody wants to have jeans and t-shirts, but where those products come from and how they are produced are important to think about.
PRIDE IN PRODUCT
“Would you rather have a cotton shirt that wasn’t hand-picked by a child forced into slave labor in a third-world country? We have none of that in the U.S., and we should be proud of that.” He believes the high U.S. standards for cotton production should resonate with clothing companies and brands looking to “avoid a black eye by buying cotton from places that abuse children, workers, or the environment.”
California’s heavy regulatory burden makes Golden State cotton production even more challenging than the rest of the U.S., where labor costs alone run $5 per bale more than other regions of the cotton belt, and fuel costs to dry those bales run an additional $3 per bale more than comparable costs in the Mid-South, according to Roger Isom, president of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association.
Michael praises Isom for his work in trying to beat back onerous regulatory constraints on a limited association budget, saying the marketing issues and sustainability stories that the industry promotes are coming out of national organizations, such as Cotton Incorporated, the National Cotton Council, and Supima.
Michael improved his harvest efficiency with John Deere harvesters that roll round modules, wrapped in plastic, that are ready for transport to the gin. His family, along with Dr. Bill Weir, a former farm advisor with the University of California, pioneered growing cotton on 30-inch row spacing, which University of California Cotton specialist Robert Hutmacher says closes in the vegetative canopy sooner than wider spacings and can help increase yields.
Though Michael has some ground set aside for organic production, none of it is planted to cotton because, he says, the financial incentives aren’t there to commit to organic production. “We would do that if we had a partner who was willing to commit to paying the higher cost for it,” he says.
Insect pressure is generally light in his cotton. He uses integrated pest management practices that include leaving uncut strips of alfalfa behind to prevent entire populations of lygus bugs from migrating into his cotton, or his neighbor’s, after the alfalfa is cut. “We’re usually fairly light on aphids, though we do see some occasional whiteflies.”
Much of his cotton is irrigated by subsurface drip lines. The rest is furrow irrigated. Bowles Farming converted much of its land to drip irrigation beginning in 2004. The primary driver for this move was their tomato crop, which benefitted greatly from the new way of irrigating the plants.
Cotton and tomatoes make good rotational crops, Michael says; the tomatoes leave nutrients in the soil that can be useful to the cotton. His alfalfa plantings are in decline as the California dairy industry shrinks and the price he can get on contract for tomatoes makes that crop more valuable.
He employs drone technology to scout and map fields for nutritional deficiencies and pest outbreaks. Thermal imagery from the unmanned aircraft can help identify areas where drip irrigation lines need repair.
AERIAL IMAGERY HELPFUL
“We’re trying to figure out technology in a bunch of different ways,” Michael says, “and aerial imagery has been helpful for a number of years. We have applied growth regulators to the cotton using variable rate technology for over a decade.”
His proximity to wetlands and a national wildlife refuge has taught him about native plants and the environmental benefits of unfarmed land. He farms next to the second-largest contiguous wetlands in the U.S., spanning more than 200,000 acres.
“In the past few years I’ve learned there are areas that are not good for farming, and we’ve sort of left those alone. Ultimately, those should be areas where the right plants are growing — native plants that help make sure that the environment is healthy too. We know a lot about growing crops, and now we’re learning there’s a lot more we can do to enhance the local environment.”
Understanding that environment and natural systems helps him better understand how to revegetate the environmental areas and create habitat for a variety of wildlife and insects, including pollinators. Helping pollinators — native and otherwise — benefits his cotton and melon crops, creating a win-win situation.
“I think ultimately the voting public in California wants farms that think about more than just making money and growing crops,” Michael says. “They want people to be thinking about the whole picture.” Part of that whole picture can be seen in the 1-megawatt solar system installed to power his drip irrigation system. He also uses an optimizer, an implement that reduces tillage impact by reducing the number of passes needed to prepare a field for the next season.
A GOOD STORY
“I think ultimately the California farmer has a good story to tell, and it isn’t only about farming, but that most of us are active in our communities,” he says.
How do farmers bridge the divide between them and consumers who have little-to-no knowledge of how their food and fiber is produced? “It’s tough,” he says. “It boils down to hoping the consumer wants to connect with that story, and I think they do in some ways. We keep hearing that more and more people want to know where things come from. Ultimately, it’s finding some of the big brands that are trying to connect with the consumer and helping them tell this story as well.”
Michael believes cotton will always have a place in California, though acreage will likely never return to the million-plus levels of decades ago. For him, cotton serves as a good rotation for canning tomatoes, a popular San Joaquin Valley crop.
“Cotton is a huge part of what we do out here — and we’re good at doing that. I can’t see us going away from cotton.”