When it's cotton harvest time in California, the picking machines usually begin in the Imperial Valley, stripping the white blankets from the southwestern corner of the state before gradually moving north into the vast cotton fields of the Central Valley.
But this month, the usual slow-paced start of the harvest was depressingly sluggish. Cotton has all but disappeared from the Imperial Valley.
Only 4,000 acres in the Imperial Valley were planted in cotton this last spring--a mere patch of fuzz compared to the 140,000-acre cotton crop in the valley 15 years ago. After years of battling the destructive pink bollworm, many of the valley's cotton growers just gave up this year, rather than face a second season of a newer, more ravenous pest called the strain B whitefly--all for dwindling prices.
And so most of the cotton gins in the valley are silent this season. Cotton workers are out of work. Growers expecting higher prices for the vegetables they planted in place of the cotton are facing tough competition. The loss of the cotton crop is ricocheting throughout the Imperial Valley's farm economy.
Overall, the cotton production in the United States is expected to be down this year to an estimated 16.5 million bales, compared to 17.6 million in 1991. Much of the decline can be tied to problems in Texas, the country's largest producer of cotton. Nearly a quarter of that state's crop was lost to heavy spring rains.
The whitefly has also been a problem along the southwestern growing ranges in Texas, Arizona and northern Mexico, wiping out some fields completely and damaging others. Ginners in Arizona and California's Riverside County, where the harvest also has begun, say that damage from the whitefly makes the cotton harder to gin and will reduce yields.
Larry Cox, whose family did not plant cotton this year on its Imperial Valley farmlands for the first time since the early 1950s, ticked off the effects of the lost crop.
"A lot of people--people who drive the pickers, who truck the bales around, who sell seed"--are out of work, he said. "All that acreage that used to go into cotton is now moved into other crops. We're overproducing other vegetables and wheat, and that has a dampening effect on other prices."
Out of a dozen cotton gins that used to operate in the Imperial Valley, only one, the Planters Ginning Co. in Westmorland, is still up and running. Its manager, Robert E. Bedwell, said that 10 years ago, "when I first got this job, 52 people were working for me during the season. Now I have 23. The (ginning) season used to run three to four months, and now it's a month to six weeks. In terms of wages paid out, that's a lot less, and a lot less in terms of money back into the economy."
Growers in the valley are "on the ragged edge of disaster," Bedwell said. "A lot of people had overplanted vegetables (last year) and everybody got surprised--they had a mediocre crop but no market."
Bedwell said he expects that, by next year, the stiff competition in winter vegetables will force many growers back into cotton.
Cox is already working with other growers to make that happen--to "get cotton going" in the Imperial Valley next year, he said.
"One of our concerns is that if there's not any cotton grown, then the gins go out of business," he said, "so even if we grow cotton, we can't have it ginned."
Cox said the informal group of growers is talking about trying to get 10,000 to 15,000 acres planted in cotton next season.
Cotton acreage has also been declining in Riverside County--though at a slower pace than in neighboring Imperial. Still, "our acreage has gone down considerably in the last couple of years. It's the economy, the whitefly, the pink bollworm," said Wallace Shropshire, manager of the Ripley Ginning Corp. in Ripley, which rubs up against the Arizona border about 10 miles south of Blythe. In five years, he said, "we've gone from 30,000 acres down to 13,700 now."
Shropshire figures that the Ripley gin--one of two left in the county--will process cotton from about 3,000 of those acres this year. "We're down now--we just gin with one shift and one crew. Five years ago," Shropshire said, "I'd run two shifts for a period of time. Now I don't need that second shift."
Shropshire also complained about the prices, which at the beginning of the harvest in Southern California were 55 cents a pound on the futures market, compared to 69 cents at the same time last year. "I've seen lots of ups and downs in the cotton business over the years," he said. "But I don't think we've seen the price dip this low in a long time."
Ironically, the troubles in the cotton fields come as cotton fabric is enjoying renewed favor with the American consumer. Cotton now commands nearly 55% of the U.S. market for fibers (excluding carpeting), up from 34% only 20 years ago.