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That Cotton-Picking El Nino Hurts Growers

Agriculture: Rain and cold weather have kept the farmers out of their fields since the planting season began on March 10.


El Nino is frazzling the nerves of California growers of Pima cotton, a high-quality variety that is an important export crop.

Rainstorms propelled by the unusual weather phenomenon--and accompanying cold temperatures--have kept cotton growers out of their fields and unable to plant since the March 10 start of the season. By this time, farmers would have had most, if not all, of their Pima cotton seed in the ground.

Only about 10% of the crop has been planted, said Mark Bagby, a spokesman for Calcot, a big grower cooperative in Bakersfield. And the stretch of chilly weather in the Central Valley, which hampers germination, dictates that most of the planted acres will almost certainly have to be replanted. Each planting costs $40 to $50 an acre.

Compounding the problem was Wednesday's forecast for several more wet, brisk days.

"I don't think we've ever experienced it to this degree," said Fred Starrh, a Shafter grower who devotes about 4,300 of his family's 10,000 acres to cotton.

The delay is ironic, given that growers had been clamoring for years for permission to move up the industry's tightly regulated date for the start of planting. In past years, that date was March 20, but this year, for the first time in many years, growers were allowed to roll into their fields on March 10.

The state Legislature sets the planting date, on the recommendation of the San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board, to ensure an orderly market.

California cotton is a key crop, worth about $1 billion a year to growers. The state accounts for about one-fifth of the nation's production; at least 75% of California cotton goes overseas. Acreage in the state devoted to cotton has been slipping in the last couple of years because of high production costs and falling prices.

Cotton prices took another hit Tuesday in response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's annual acreage forecast. Nationwide, the agency said, growers are expected to plant 13.2 million acres, well below the 13.8 million acres last year. However, private forecasts had been for plantings in the 12-million-acre range. Traders reacted to the USDA's forecast by driving down the price of cotton by 3 cents a pound, or $15 a bale.

The price drop "won't encourage anyone to rush out and plant," Bagby said.

In California, according to the USDA forecast, growers will plant 990,000 acres of cotton this year, down from 1.06 million in 1997 and the first year the acreage has been under 1 million since 1983.

Cotton seed vendors on Wednesday were scanning the dark clouds for a silver lining.

"If planting can be completed by April 20, there should be no economic harm," said Tom Cherry, president of California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors, a grower-owned breeding and distribution operation. However, he acknowledged that, given the season's wet pattern, "a lot may not even be in by the 1st of May."

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