As dry conditions continue, California farmers are expected to plant fewer row crops such as cotton and processing tomatoes, in order to save water for their trees and vines, but seed and transplant producers of those crops say it is still early to know just how deep the reductions will be.
Andy Pon, general manager of Westside Transplant, said sales volume for the company's tomato transplants has so far been about the same as last year, if not slightly more.
"My sales group's viewpoint is that farmers are going to probably cut out other row crop options to keep their processing tomatoes," he said.
At the company's Yolo County facility last week, work crews were busy seeding the season's first batch of transplants. Greenhouse manager Andy Kennedy said he expects his Northern California facility, which is located in Winters, will see increased production this year, while Westside's three San Joaquin Valley greenhouses—located in Firebaugh, Huron and Lemoore—will be growing fewer transplants. The assumption, he said, is that processing tomato acreage will shift more to the north state, where there is more water available.
While most farmers who plan to grow processing tomatoes are now putting in their orders, Pon said others will likely wait until early February to get a better sense of the water year. It takes 55 to 60 days from seeding to grow the transplants in time for planting, he noted. Westside usually begins shipping its first orders around March 5 and finishes its greenhouse planting by early April.
"The early volume appears to be fairly strong," Pon said, but noted that this is quite normal because farmers typically like to get in on the early-season plantings due to less heat-related risk to that crop and potentially higher yields.
Where he may see some drop in volume is in the later-season plantings, he said, as farmers adjust their plans to try to stretch their water supply.
"There's no doubt the canners will want the tomatoes, and if water wasn't a factor in this, I think acres or demand would be up by 5 to 10 percent over what we had last year," Pon said.
Beet curlytop virus contributed to a 7.6 percent decrease in tomato tonnage last year, according to the California Tomato Growers Association.
Because processors are trying to fill a hole left by production losses last year, Pon said he thinks they will try to contract as much acreage as they can with farmers who have water, and that could be in areas that traditionally haven't grown tomatoes. So while he may not sell as many transplants to growers in the south, some of that volume will likely be made up by growers in the north, he said.
"Without knowing the final price (of tomatoes), there's some uncertainty there," he said. "But those farmers who are set up to grow tomatoes, they're going to continue to grow tomatoes."
Seed companies such as Phytogen and Deltapine say they won't see any real impact on cottonseed sales until about late February or early March, when they begin filling orders and making deliveries to their various distribution channels.
Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, where most of the state's cotton is grown, typically don't start planting until March 10, noted Harry Peck, a sales representative for Phytogen, which produces seed for the majority of the state's pima cotton acreage.
"It's still an uncertainty. No doubt, there will be a reduction in acreage, but what that will be could change in the next 30 days," he said, noting the rainy season is not over.
But his "gut," he said, tells him the state's cotton acreage could drop 10 percent to 20 percent this year.
While there has been much talk about farmers fallowing their land, all of that has been anecdotal, said Paul Sawyer, district sales manager for Deltapine/Monsanto. He said the company continues to operate under an "optimistic" scenario, as it positions seed with local dealers and prepares for the upcoming planting season.
"Farmers make their decisions at different times," he said. "It's a very fluid situation, so we just stand by and cross our fingers."
Given cotton's higher prices this year, especially for pima, and the excellent yields and quality California farmers have produced in the last two years, there would be "a lot more cotton being planted" if not for concerns about water availability, said Roger Isom, president and CEO of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations.
He estimated some 75,000 to 125,000 cotton acres could be lost this year, depending on what the final water allocations will be. California farmers harvested 278,000 acres of cotton last year, with pima cotton accounting for 186,000 acres and upland cotton taking 92,000 acres.
Because pima cotton commands a higher price—and has good demand and little carryover—Isom said he expects upland cotton will take a bigger hit in the state's acreage.
"If there's any water available, it's going to be expensive, so you're going to have to increase the profit potential from that, and in California, that mostly means you're looking at pima. Upland has less appeal," said Mark Bagby, spokesman for the cotton cooperative Calcot.
The state's declining cotton production will affect some local businesses, including cotton gins, trucking companies and marketers, Bagby said. But perhaps the biggest impact will be felt by California dairy farmers, who use cottonseed left over from the ginning process as part of their feed ration, he added.
Nearly all of the cottonseed produced annually in the state goes to California dairies, which have been paying record-high prices of more than $400 a ton for the feed. Cotton gins rely on the sale of that cottonseed to dairies as their sole income, Isom noted.