Kern County cotton farmer Travis Fugitt describes cotton yields as spotty this year, given the drought conditions in California. Knowing they would have less water this season, many growers emphasized planting of higher-valued pima cotton.
Kern County cotton farmer Travis Fugitt describes cotton yields as spotty this year, given the drought conditions in California. Knowing they would have less water this season, many growers emphasized planting of higher-valued pima cotton.

As harvest of California cotton fields comes to a close, farmers and cotton experts say a lack of surface water and the low water table has resulted in fewer acres planted and a smaller crop this season.

"I know that some people probably shorted their crop a little bit, either intentionally or unintentionally, because the water just wasn't there," said Mark Bagby, spokesman for Calcot, a Bakersfield-based cotton marketing cooperative. "We probably would have seen more acreage getting planted, but everyone was just so concerned about water and water availability."

According to estimates released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this year's California cotton crop was planted on 213,000 acres—down about 23 percent from last year. Cotton is produced primarily in seven San Joaquin Valley counties and three—Fresno, Kings and Kern—account for most of that.

USDA estimates California cotton production is down this season by about 24 percent, to 730,000 bales, with upland cotton down 34 percent to 220,000 bales, and pima cotton down 18 percent to 510,000 bales.

"Last year, there were 943,000 bales total and 278,000 acres of cotton, about 30,000 more on pima and 30,000 more on upland, so basically we are down about 60,000 acres of cotton, which is mostly drought related," Bagby said. "Clearly, a lot of acreage got fallowed. The drought had a pretty significant impact on plantings in 2014."

Travis Fugitt, who farms south of Bakersfield and operates a custom-harvesting business, said, "We've seen some good cotton, and we've seen some bad."

"Average yields (that I've seen) this year are probably two-and-a-half bales (per acre) for pima and three-and-a-half bales for upland. One farmer I picked for had outstanding yields with his pima cotton; I wouldn't be surprised if he had four bales per acre," Fugitt said. "For the not-so-good yields, I attribute it to the lack of water. On my own farm where we were short water, it really hurt the yields."

Fugitt, whose family farm relies mostly on groundwater, said, "We just don't have enough volume to get through tough times like this."

He added that his wells were drilled deeper to help the farm make it through the season. This was not the case for many Westside growers, Fugitt said, who were without water and had to idle ground instead of planting cotton this season.

"We did lower everything and these wells got us through. We didn't have outstanding cotton yields, but we did have enough to pay the bills and get us through," he said.

Many cotton growers such as Fugitt knew the drought would require them to achieve more with less, so they grew more acres of the higher-value pima cotton than acala or other varieties.

"A lot of people grew pima just because of the price. You would almost need to grow a three-and-a-half bale acala crop to justify a two-bale pima crop, so you could grow less yield and still make good money," said Fugitt, who grew more pima cotton this year.

John Ellis, sales manager at J.G. Boswell Co., which grows cotton primarily in Kern and Kings counties, said the company's cotton acreage was down significantly and said if there had been additional water, they would have planted more pima cotton.

"Boswell is unique in that we grow 100 percent pima cotton—extra-long, premium cotton with longer fibers—so it gives you a better value than the traditional upland cotton," Ellis said. "There is a strong market price for pima cotton. If there was more water, we would have planted more."

Even though acreage was down this year, many growers expressed optimism about crop yields, although yields were down in some areas where water was short.

"Based on what we are hearing, most growers are fairly pleased with their yields. The pima crop in particular is going to average 1,400 to 1,500 pounds to the acre. Some fields are better than that; some less," Bagby said. "It looks like it could have been a pretty good growing season—there just aren't enough acres."

USDA rated the condition of the California cotton crop as 30 percent good and 60 percent excellent. Bagby said the plants developed well, contained lots of bolls and suffered low insect pressure.

Pima prices have held steady at $1.75 per pound for base grade, which, Bagby said, is about 15 cents a pound higher than the previous high price for pima. Acala settled at 92 cents a pound, and other cotton varieties at $1.05 a pound.

California's cotton production has experienced a long-term decline in acreage since 1998, Bagby said, at which time plantings averaged 1,000,000 acres, until about three years ago, when the figure stabilized between 300,000 and 400,000 acres. With the multi-year drought, acreage has again dropped, Bagby said, making what happens next year "even more interesting."

As another season of drought looms, Fugitt said he remains optimistic, and is even looking into purchasing a new piece of equipment that would narrow his fleet to one machine and reduce labor costs, making his business more efficient.

"The new bale machine requires one person in the machine and no module builders and no ground crew. We could actually harvest the crop with one person in the picker and one person on a tractor to stage the modules," Fugitt said.

"We are hopeful that Mother Nature gives us plenty of rainfall this winter. We are hoping for the best, but time will tell," Ellis said. "Right now, we are gearing up for full planting next year and that is based on a good rainfall amount this winter. If the rainfall doesn't materialize, adjustments will have to be made."

Roger Isom, president and CEO of the California Cotton Growers and Ginners Associations, said, "There are no guesses for next year, as it all depends on the water situation."