Cotton shrinks in dryer West

Valley Cotton Classing Office in Visalia now evaluates one-third the acreage across four states with a fraction of the employees than it did 30 years ago

VISALIA – No longer the king, times have changed in the Central Valley cotton business. California used to produce over 1.6 million acres of cotton but today that is down to about 100,000 acres.

Those changes have affected the Valley Cotton Classing Office operated by USDA in the Visalia Industrial Park. Director of the center Greg Townsend said the Visalia office was opened in 1991 after consolidating operations in Fresno and Bakersfield in the heart of the Valley’s cotton belt. The grower-funded center sorts and grades samples from cotton bales coming out of gins up and down the state. As an unbiased government operation, the work here provides both sellers and buyers with certainty over color, fiber length and other key characteristics that allow trusted valuation.

Back then “we were seeing some 2.5 million bales of cotton each year sourced from about 100 cotton gins around the Valley,” Townsend said.

Cotton acreage in California peaked in the late 1980s when it reached over 1.6 million acres. It’s been in a steep decline since then dropping to 844,000 in 2000, free falling to just 200,000 acres in 2010, dipping to 179,000 in 2020 and declining to 114,000 acres in drought-plagued California in 2021.

With the harvest coming in the fall, there is a three-month period when sorting and measuring at the USDA center is the busiest. In 1993 that required 350 seasonal jobs at the center in Visalia, according to a 1991 report compiled by the city of Visalia.

Fast forward to 2023 and Townsend says the USDA complex does some seasonal hiring but only needs 50 workers in addition to its six full-time employees. The job is much more automated today, he noted, with better technology requiring fewer hands to sort.

Besides technology there is another major reason why times have changed at the local USDA center.

Cotton Acreage Shrinks

Townsend said the industry itself has shrunk in the last 30 years.

Instead of being in charge of grading the cotton grown in the Valley, the Visalia center now sorts cotton from four states, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Instead of measuring the quality of 2.5 million bales grown in the Valley in 1993, the center is in charge of 800,000 bales, one third the volume, now grown across the four states in the American West.

“And the volume is getting smaller,” Townsend said, as the drought grips much of the cotton belt including places like Arizona. While Arizona looks to be on permanent decline, California cotton acreage bounces around based on water availability.

A 2022 report stated Arizona acres in upland cotton, the dominant variety of the crop, are down 47% from 2021, but the yield on all 83,000 acres is projected to be higher by 5 pounds to the acre, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s August Crop Production Report.

“Pima cotton is keeping the cotton industry alive [in the San Joaquin Valley],” Townsend said. 

The Visalia center grades both pima and upland varieties. Today there are 21 pima gins mostly in California and 30 upland gins in the multi-state service territory. Reports say that in the 1960s there were about 300 gins in California but most now are empty or have been converted to other uses. A major cotton complex in Hanford is now being used to store marijuana.

If the California cotton industry depends on the weather, there is good news at our doorstep.

“We’re going to see some major precipitation coming into parts of California in the near future,” Eric Snodgrass, Principal Atmospheric Scientist for Nutrien, said at a Cotton Incorporated Weekly Weather Update last month, according to Cotton Grower magazine. “But from now all the way through next year, it’s all about keeping an eye on soil moisture and what our drought situation looks like. La Niña is still here. It is in control and will stay in control likely through the start of the new year. I think it would be critical to be watching from about Dec. 15 to Jan. 15 to see if we can get rid of this.

“I don’t think the drought issues we’re encountering now are going to last into spring,” he added. “As you look out until March, we start to see models hinting La Niña really beginning to fade and better moisture events for most of the country, including the Cotton Belt.” 

Looking out the window, as of press time, heavy rain is projected through the end of the month across the state and snowpack in the southern Sierra is 206% of average.

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