February 17, 2023
California cotton farmers like Aaron Barcellos have good reason to walk with their heads high. The extra-long staple cotton they produce in the West continues to gain popularity with large brands willing to pay premium prices for the fiber crop.
Barcellos is part of a small cadre of U.S. cotton growers capable of producing high quality Pima cotton used in fine linens and clothing. He is also this year’s Farm Press High Cotton Award winner from the West, part of an elite group of growers from across the Cotton Belt known for their environmental stewardship and sustainability practices.
The practices used to produce high-quality Pima cotton continue to win over the hearts and minds of brand manufacturers, according to reports from Supima, the trade association that markets premium Pima cotton under the company’s licensed trademark. Barcellos is a board member of the Arizona-based trade association.
Barcellos is a fourth-generation California farmer, but the first to focus on crops not tied to dairy production.
“My dad got out of the dairy business in 1987 during the whole herd dairy buyout program,” he said. I was getting close to graduating college with an ag business degree and a dairy science minor when all the sudden I found out we didn’t have a dairy anymore.”
Prior to that, the farming done by the Barcellos family centered on producing forage crops for the dairy herd. Upland cotton became the first crop the family planted that did not directly support a livestock operation.
The family farm that Barcellos owns in partnership with several family members is called “A-Bar Ag Enterprises,” a nod to Aaron’s father, Arnold. Aaron is a partner in the farming operation with his son Alec, his brother, Aric, and Aric’s son, Aric Jake.
“A-Bar Ag Enterprises is handed down from my dad,” he said. “His buddies used to call him that as a nickname, so we turned it into the business name because all of our names start with the letter ‘a’.”
After the dairy sold, the family began to farm Upland cotton on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley, between Los Banos and Mendota. Stale prices for commodity cotton and California’s ever-tightening regulatory restrictions pushed Barcellos to Pima for its higher prices. His cotton acreage can fluctuate each year as water availability continues to be a premium. In good years he’s grown as much as 2,500 acres of Pima cotton.
A-Bar Ag Enterprises is diversified, growing a handful of row and permanent crops, including pistachios, olives for oil, pomegranates, processing tomatoes, garlic, wheat, hay, and melons. He is one of the state’s last asparagus growers as foreign competition from Mexico has driven much of the state’s asparagus industry to other crops.
Specialty crop status
U.S. Pima cotton is unlike its commodity counterpart in several ways, Barcellos says.
“We’re just a small segment of the overall cotton fiber market,” he said. “We’re a long staple fiber that is used for your high-count linen sheets and high-quality dress shirts. The customer we’re supporting is a different customer. They’re going to buy Supima cotton because they want to buy something of value.”
Pima production for the 2022 season may barely exceed 400,000 bales. This puts it in a specialty crop status, according to Barcellos. Its specialty uses and demand bolstered its prices in the past couple of years to well above $3 per pound to the grower.
“For us Pima is the only cotton we can grow and actually have a chance of making a profit because we can’t grow Upland in California and make a profit at today’s prices,” he said.
California’s sustainability story – those practices that Golden State farmers have long adopted not because they were forced on them, but because growers saw them as the right thing to do – sells well with buyers of Supima cotton.
Part of this sustainability story rests in the vast amounts of data and records farmers collect each year. Their crop protection applications are all documented. The products they have available today are softer chemistries, allowing farmers to target troublesome pests while protecting beneficial insects and bees.
Water availability remains critical for farmers in his region. Barcellos farms across five different water districts, including two Exchange Contract districts. These are the senior rights regions that are supposed to be the last districts cut when irrigation deliveries are limited. Like others around him, he continues to farm crops on drip irrigation systems and through other water-thrifty technologies.
These practices help him consistently yield 1,600-1,700 pounds of cotton per acre across his farms, which are in the northern extent of California’s cotton growing region. This is noteworthy because the north valley region tends to be cooler than points further south. The heat units cotton farmers see in Kings, Tulare and Kern counties can help push yields beyond 2,000 pounds, whereas in Merced County and parts of western Fresno County, the delta climate influence tempers the heat units and yields.
Aaron, 58, and his younger brother Aric (pronounced “erik”) each have sons that are partners in the operation. Aric’s son Jake, 31, and Aaron’s son Alec, 26, are the fifth generation of Barcellos’ to farm in the Valley.
“We’ve done a lot of succession planning to figure out how to bring in the next generation,” Aaron said. “We didn’t want to bring them in just to work for the farm, we wanted to give them an ownership stake and be part of it.”
Succession planning is part of the overall sustainability of these long-time family farms. Regardless of the corporate identifiers and tax implications of each, Barcellos says the necessity to grow the farming operations does not eliminate the family farming concept.
“We’re still a family farm. Most of the farms in California are family farms,” he said. “These farms are bigger because we brought in other generations, and the only way you can bring in another generation is you’ve got to grow somehow. You’ve got to create more income.”
Aaron has long been active in cotton associations and various agricultural organizations. His is a past chairman of the Cotton Board, is current chairman of the Tomato Products Wellness Council, and sits on various other commodity and water district boards. He is also a director on the board of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, which is an effort to set a sustainability standard for U.S. grown cotton. The Cotton Trust Protocol is designed to bring quantifiable and verifiable goals and measurement to sustainable cotton production and drive continuous improvements in key sustainability metrics.
He gives back to his local community by donating to local FFA chapters and for college scholarships for students of farmworkers who attend two local high schools – Los Banos High School and Pacheco High School.
“These have been the first generation of students born here to these families who work for our farms,” he said. “We need them, and we just try to give a little back for that.”
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