Calcot notes challenges of change

As the cliché goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 1978, Calcot Ltd. was a market-leading cotton marketing cooperative, dealing solely in Far Western cottons, with a new CEO at the helm, handling about 1.5 million bales per season.

Today, 25 years later, Calcot Ltd. is a market-leading cotton marketing cooperative, dealing solely in Far Western cottons, with a new CEO at the helm, handling as many as 1.5 million bales per season.

On the surface, it looks like not much has changed. But there have been some significant changes and, more importantly, some significant challenges facing the nation's largest exporter of Far Western cotton, as well as the entire Far Western cotton industry.

A quarter century ago, Calcot's newly-named CEO was Tom W. Smith, who was entering a 25-year stint as Calcot's president. About two million acres were planted to cotton in Arizona and California, producing almost four million bales, thanks to an average yield of 980 pounds per acre.

Today, acreage has declined in the two states. Pima production — once a staple of Arizona — has shifted to California, which is now the nation's leading ELS producer.

The Golden State's San Joaquin Valley, once solely home to Acala varieties, now has Pima and California Upland cottons in addition to the well-known Acalas.

Acreage has fallen, though, between the two states, to just under a million acres. However, improving technologies of irrigation, genetically-modified varieties and better farming practices, have boosted yields to a phenomenal average of 1,396 pounds per acre. That has helped partially offset the loss in acreage, but total production is still less. 2002-03 production is about 2.6 million bales.

Huge pima shift

Arizona has seen a huge shift of Pima acreage to the San Joaquin Valley, but has coped by greatly expanding genetically-modified cotton planted there, which has also helped boost yields. Still, acreage is about half what it was 25 years ago.

One big change in the past 25 years has been the emergence of export markets as primary targets for Far Western production. Two decades ago, about half of Calcot's business was in the domestic markets. Today, the vast majority — some seasons as high as 90 percent — will find ready buyers overseas, as the U.S.'s domestic textile market has shrunk.

This has greatly increased competition amongst providers of U.S. cotton for export market share, as other U.S. cottons have entered the marketing mix.

World cotton production has also soared in the past 25 years. That development has led to a cotton classing and marketing school Calcot has held almost every summer since 1978. Over 400 graduates of the school have gone on to careers in the world textile industry, and most of them today are customers of Calcot's grower-members, thanks to the relationships built and fostered through the school.

Calcot itself has gone through numerous changes, with perhaps the most notable being a new president, only the fourth CEO in the past 60 years.

Tom Smith's retirement in 2002 prompted a worldwide search for a new leader, and Calcot's board of directors settled on Australian David Farley, who assumed the post on Oct. 1, 2002.

Calcot in the past 25 years has also significantly altered its facilities, building a warehouse complex in Hanford in 1978, but closing its Imperial Valley and Fresno warehouse complexes in the 1990s. Lower acreage and lesser production had made those facilities superfluous, and the Imperial warehouses, in particular, were expensive to maintain.

The Fresno complex — originally a timber mill in the 1920s — has been in a transitional process, developed and transformed under Calcot's direction into a shining example of real estate development known as Palm Bluffs. It is currently generating a handsome return on investment for Calcot members.

Northern california

Another milestone of the past 25 years has been the development of cotton acreage in California's Sacramento Valley. While currently only about 25,000 acres, the northern California region does hold promise for profitable returns for Golden State growers, as the area has lower water costs than the San Joaquin Valley. The lack of infrastructure — such as warehousing and cotton ginning facilities — has slowed acreage expansion, but the less certain weather patterns of the Sacramento Valley has limited potential to a greater extent.

Water wars, environmental concerns, urban development and fluctuating U.S. farm policy have combined to cut San Joaquin Valley and Arizona acreage, though there are still excellent markets for the region's cottons. Overseas competition and a strong U.S. dollar have made those markets profitable for other growers, unfortunately, and will continue to be influences on grower options and crop choices in the years to come.

And at home, much of the lost million acres have gone into permanent crops or residential development, which makes it highly unlikely that acreage will ever rebound to the levels of 25 years ago.

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