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Western cotton acreage in regrettable free-fall

California cotton acreage has fallen by 60 percent since 1997. In same period, Arizona cotton acreage has plummeted 75 percent.

At the recent Calcot 78th annual meeting in Visalia, tables were set for about 250 people. At the 50th anniversary meeting 2,000 gathered in Bakersfield. Will Calcot's 80th anniversary in two years be held in a broom closet?

Delta and Pine Land's annual Arizona field day in Pinal County once attracted 1,000 people, the largest agricultural gathering in the state. This year, no more than 200 were on hand at the field day in Coolidge. At the rate it is going, 2010 field day attendees will be fed under a pup tent.

It is depressing to this long-of-tooth cotton editor, pondering the question, is cotton disappearing from Western agriculture? I don't believe it will, not in the foreseeable future. However, it will never again be what it once was. A decade ago, about 1.6 million acres of cotton were harvested in both states producing more 4 million bales of cotton. This year, USDA is predicting 2.5 million bales from a little more than 900,000 acres.

Fortunately, producers are picking more cotton per acre and that is taking some of the sting out of the acreage free-fall.

Cotton — all of Arizona agriculture — is giving away to homes and warehouses. Developers and land speculators are tossing checks for $30,000 or more per acre at cotton farmers in Central Arizona and west of Phoenix. No one can blame them for catching the checks.

Cotton will continue to be part of Arizona, grown mostly on Indian reservations in the future.

In California, cotton will continue to give way to higher value crops like almonds, pistachios, walnuts and grapes and corn and alfalfa for the growing dairy industry — and houses as well. The fastest growing area of California is the heart of cotton country — the San Joaquin Valley where land is relatively cheap for development compared to Southern California and the Bay Area.

Fortunately, California has Pima cotton. Without Pima, which was introduced into the valley in the mid-1980s, cotton would be little more than a specialty crop by the end of this decade. Pima and the Supima Association are the best things that have ever happened to the California cotton industry. Pima acreage continues to grow because of world demand and prices 30 cents per pound higher than upland. It is absolutely remarkable the demand created for American Extra Long Staple cotton by Supima's license and branding program. It is the best $2 million per year voluntarily investment cotton producers have ever made.

SJV Acala cotton will continue to be produced because of a growing demand for high quality natural cotton fiber. There just will not be much of it because world prices are too low to make it very profitable, even with a good increase in yields over the past few years.

Everyone expected cotton acreage to decline over time. However, the current free-fall, especially in California, is taking everyone surprise. It is happening quicker than expected.

The decline is also in part due to the growing uncertainty over future federal farm programs. This is unfortunate for American and Western agriculture.

For an editor who still loves to write about cotton, it is a sad time. However, as long as someone is willing to grow “poverty weed,” cotton will remain on my story list.

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