Farmers expect higher plantings of annual crops


Issue Date: February 27, 2019
By Ching Lee

More rain this winter and an improved water outlook promise California farmers more flexibility in what annual crops to grow, even if sluggish commodity prices limit their crop choices.

For example, California cotton acreage is expected to increase this year to 287,000, according to a planting-intentions survey by the National Cotton Council. Citing expected water availability, the council reported California farmers intend to plant 230,000 acres of pima cotton and 57,000 acres of upland cotton. That's up 9.7 percent and 14.4 percent, respectively, from last year.

"When you consider tomatoes and other row crops, cotton seems to be a pretty good option right now," said Roger Isom, president and CEO of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association.

Should final water allocations improve for some Central Valley farmers (see story), Isom said he thinks total California cotton acreage could rise by as much as 20 percent, provided seeds—especially for newer cotton varieties—are available for those making late planting decisions. He said the long-term decline in acreage has meant lower demand for seeds, with seed companies not saving as much for planting.

At its peak in the late 1970s, California cotton acreage reached more than 1.6 million but dropped to a low of 162,000 acres in 2015 amid California's multi-year drought.

With more water available this year, Merced County farmer Bill Crivelli said not only will he plant more cotton, but he'll be able to use all his land, whereas he was forced to fallow hundreds of acres in 2014 and 2015 due to water shortages.

"We can pretty much plant the crops that have the best return and the best prices right now," he said.

Even though cotton prices have weakened, he said he still considers pima and upland "two of the best things going" compared to crops such as corn and processing tomatoes, adding, "there's just a lack of alternatives." He described prices for processing tomatoes as "marginal" and said he's not sure he will grow any this year; he didn't last year. If prices improve for feed corn, he said he may still grow some because the crop doesn't require as much investment as tomatoes.

The improved water outlook will also allow him to double-crop this year on ground now planted to forage hay. He said he hasn't decided whether to grow melons or squash after the forage, but noted melons are "always a gamble on price." The longer shelf life of newer melon varieties has slowed demand, he said, and that means there's less of a need for more melon acreage.

Because Ramon Chavez farms on the west side of Fresno County and relies on surface-water deliveries from the federal Central Valley Project, he described this time of year as "stressful" as he anticipates announcement of final water allocations—all while trying to make cropping decisions ahead of knowing how much water he will ultimately have. He had to make some decisions in the fall, and has already planted lettuce, garlic, parsley and some sweet corn.

"We take a chance on processing tomatoes and sweet corn. If we don't have enough water, we just fallow sweet corn or tomatoes," Chavez said, noting he has until May to finish planting both.

Water is not the only factor he's considering when trying to decide what and how much to plant. With cold winter weather, which has delayed current desert sweet-corn production, the early-season market should be lucrative, he said—but there's concern that once temperatures warm, corn will flood the market, lowering prices. Having too much crop mature at once also makes harvest difficult, he said.

"Corn takes a lot of labor, so we don't want to have it pile up, because then we have to work a lot of overtime," he said.

For Bret Ferguson, who also farms in Fresno County, the high input cost on processing tomatoes, at around $3,500 an acre, versus cotton, at $1,800 to $2,000 an acre, means he'll reduce half his normal tomato acreage in favor of growing more pima cotton. He said he also used to grow melons and onions, but got out of those due to the poor market.

"Commodity prices have driven our decisions," Ferguson added.

Isom said cotton is also more attractive to farmers this year due to the "phenomenal" yield and quality of last year's crop.

"If we could have yields like that, even with somewhat-depressed prices, we could do OK," he said.

The challenge for farmers this year, though, is the possibility late spring rains could delay planting. Historically, Isom said, farmers have gotten better crops when there's a dry winter, as it allows them more time to work the ground and plant early. Pima cotton requires a longer growing season and planting it after May 1 is considered risky, he said. If there's a wet spring, farmers may choose to plant more upland, which has a shorter growing season, is easier to grow and cheaper to gin, he added.

"The money is less (with upland), but if you have higher yield, you can make up some of that," he said.

As a dryland farmer, Sean McCauley, who farms in Contra Costa, Solano and San Joaquin counties, said he kept things simple this year and planted most of his acreage to winter wheat while reserving some ground for safflower this spring. He took a similar approach last year and had "pretty good luck with wheat." He used to grow barley and corn also—both for feed—but decided not to this year, based on market prices. With the generous rainfall so far this winter, he said his bet has paid off on wheat, because the crop so far looks good.

"Hopefully, the market will stabilize and prices will rebound," he said.

In terms of his potato and carrot crops, Kern County farmer John Moore III said increased water availability won't change the amount of acreage he grows, but it would allow him to plant more cover crops such as wheat or sudangrass, which helps prevent soil erosion and improve soil health. In short water years, he would have to leave that ground fallow.

"I'm trying to get away from growing the same crop back to back," he said. "When we have water, we're able to be more creative. With more water comes better soil management and the capacity to do so."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.