California cotton industry comeback

“It’s cotton again in 2010,” is the latest heralding from Earl Williams, California cotton’s No. 1 booster.

This new Williamsese from the president of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations follows “cotton will be fine in ’09.” Unfortunately, that battle cry did not marshal many soldiers, as the economy collapsed worldwide and with it cotton demand and prices.

California cotton acreage plummeted to 190,000 acres last season, the lowest since the 1920s, as growers turned to more profitable crops.

Williams unveiled his latest harbinger at the California Cotton Growers Association annual meeting in Coalinga, Calif., in mid-March. Fortunately, it was already ringing true in the first week that growers could legally plant cotton in the San Joaquin Valley. Producers must wait until mid-March to seed because of pink bollworm host free/overwintering regulations.

With excellent rainfall moisture and the University of California five-day degree days acccumulation planting forecast calling for ideal, week-long planting conditions, Larry Gallian, Crop Production Services (CPS), PCA from Visalia, Calif., said at the meeting 4,000 bags of seed were shipped to his growers the week of March 15. He figures CPS shipped 10,000 bags total for the week.

“I would normally expect about 200 bags to go out in a week this early in the season,” said Gallian, a former Tulare County gin manager.

Gallian said, however, many of his growers had not pre-irrigated and planned to seed into rain moisture. Makes sense since Central Valley rainfall totals were measuring well over 100 percent of normal by mid-March.

Gallian said planting in March without pre-irrigating is risky. “It is pretty iffy. Frost, hail or wet cold weather could knock out a stand. If that happens, you are into May for replanting.” That is definitely too late for Pima and challenging for short staple.

Tulare County, Calif., producer Steve Wilbur is not willing to take the risk. “I have more field work to do. I am not a gambler,” he explained at the same meeting. Wilbur is association treasurer.

Playing it safe might be a good bet this year to ensure a first-rate crop to match strong prices for both short staple and Extra Long Staple/Pima cotton.

Short of catastrophic spring weather reducing a sharp projected acreage increase, the California cotton turnaround Williams and others have been hoping for is here.

Acreage will be up at least 40 percent this season; maybe 50 percent, Williams predicts. He is confident 300,000 acres will be planted; possibly 350,000 if conditions remain ideal.

Williams projected in mid-March that California acreage will be split; 200,000 acres of Pima and 100,000 short staple. If weather prohibits longer-season Pima planting, the percentage of Pima versus short staple could change.

Prices well above $1 per pound for Pima and a realistic yield expectation of 1,500 pounds per acre are not the only reasons for Pima’s popularity. This year, for the first time, the new Roundup Flex Pima (PHY 805 RF) from Phytogen will be available exclusively for California producers. This first technology trait Pima was already reaching the limited supplies category with the warm spring weather. At the meeting, Williams said Phytogen reported to him that if producers wanted the seed, they had better get their orders in immediately.

“The cotton train is back on the track,” Williams stated. He has said for several years that California cotton acreage needs to be at the level he is predicting for this year for cotton to remain a sustainable industry.

Williams and others have been concerned about preserving cotton’s infrastructure, particularly gins. Last year 34 gins operated.

“There will be no gin closures this year. There has been talk of two or three gins closed last year that could re-open this year. I don’t think it will happen.” Nevertheless, he said the calls and conversations about it are signs cotton is on the rebound in the Far West.

Cotton is making a comeback because the alternative crops that took a lot of it out over the past decade are no longer as attractive. The struggling Valley dairy industry also is contributing to the comeback. Dairy cow numbers are down and demand and prices paid for forage and grain crops are going down with the dairy malaise.

The recent announcement that the federal government is increasing the water supply on the West Side of the Valley from 5 percent to 25 percent of contract allotments also may bring cotton back to that area.

The bottom line is cotton prices have rebounded significantly since last season and the crop is now profitable.

California’s cotton wagon is hitched to Pima. California produces 90 percent of America’s Pima cotton.

The worldwide recession hit luxury goods hard, including fine county Pima cotton products, said Jess Curlee, president of Supima, the marketing arm of American Pima cotton.

People stopped buying all luxury items from jewelry to fine cotton to luxury cars, said Curlee. “Nine months ago if you tried to deliver a bale of Pima cotton to a textile mill, they’d run you off.

“What a difference a year makes,” Curlee said.

Supima products are on the rebound.

Current Pima bale shipments stand at 668 percent of last year with 558,800 bales shipped versus 83,700 bales shipped at the same time last year. Curlee predicts exports will reach 625,000 bales for the 2009-2010 crop year.

This figure is just 2,700 bales from the fourth largest export record set during the 2002-2003 crop year.

China continues to be the largest buyer with a record 309,200 bales already purchased. India is the second largest consumer with 118,000 bales and Pakistan is the third largest consumer with 63,100 bales purchased.

There were experts predicting the demise of Pima cotton at the bottom of the worldwide recession. Curlee bristles at such a notion. “There will always be a demand for high end products like ELS cotton goods,” he said.

Supima has done a masterful job with its licensing program to identify American Pima products. There are almost 400 textile companies from spinning mills to clothing retailers who are licensed to market Supima cotton products.

At the California Cotton Growers annual meeting, Curlee detailed the aggressive marketing efforts of stores like Bloomingdale’s, which has exclusive Supima displays and products in 18 of its stores with a goal to put it in even more their stores.

One of the most successful marketing partners for Supima has been Brooks Brothers, an American company dating back to 1818.

It recently launched an aggressive in-store and catalog marketing campaign for 100 percent Pima men’s and women’s apparel. On a recent visit to Brooks Brothers’ flagship store in New York City, Curlee discovered eight of the nine display windows of the store featured Supima apparel.

Brooks Brothers developed a catalog featuring Supima apparel and shipped it to 500,000 of its best customers. This alone represents an investment of more than $1 million in the Supima brand, Curlee said.

Curlee detailed other Supima marketing efforts, including a Facebook page catering to brides planning weddings. The first month it had 6,000 visitors, 20,000 page views and 4,300 video plays.

Supima licensees pay $5,000 per year to use the Supima label on Pima products.

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TAGS: Cotton
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