Most of California's cotton is grown in the San Joaquin Valley and has a reputation for being among the highest quality in the world – characterized by its extra-long, strong and silky fiber properties.
Cotton is an annual crop and in California it is planted in April, taking about 180 to 200 days to reach full maturity for harvest in October. The crop starts to flower in June; as the flower dies back, the inner part of the bloom gradually develops into a fruit called the "cotton boll"; once mature, the fiber is removed from the plant using a mechanical harvester.
Some measurement facts:
At its full size, the closed cotton boll is approximately 1.5" wide.
Cotton plants reach approximately 3-4' height
Mature cotton fibers in California are approximately 1 1/16" long
Pictures: Young plant, flower, closed boll, open boll
Cotton in California is irrigated. Furrow irrigation is the most prevalent irrigation system used, with a small percentage of drip irrigation systems being implemented as water supplies tighten. Drip irrigation is very efficient, but also very expensive to install and maintain, so its' use in a crop like cotton, which carries a small profit margin, is limited. The most critical time to apply water to cotton is as the young plants are developing. Cotton is generally irrigated about five times during the season, tapering off as the plant matures to encourage fiber development instead of leaf development. Irrigation ends in August to allow plants to dry out, and to prepare for harvest.
Sustainable Cotton Production and Processing- Water Issues
Photo Credit: Karina Corbett Photography
Once removed from the field, the harvested cotton is compressed into large 'loafs' called modules, which weigh approximately 18,000 pounds. The modules (commonly known as 'seed cotton') are trucked to a gin where the seed and fiber are then separated. The fiber is then compressed into bales of approximately 500 lb and labeled with a permanent bale identification (PBI) bar code, for easy identification and tracking to the spinner. The cottonseed is stockpiled by the gin and sold as cattle feed or to the oil seed market.
Photo Credit: Karina Corbett Photography
Cottonseed represents 60% of the cotton harvest by weight. It is often used in salad dressings, marinades and baked goods. It has a light fresh taste and high smoke point, making it a good choice for stir fry dishes and frying. It is excellent for the finest baked goods and also popular for cooking potato chips and other snack foods where fresh taste is important. Check out the ingredient list of your favorite snacks or dressings and see if they contain cottonseed.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) takes a fiber sample from every bale of cotton to test it for length, strength, color and fineness. This data taken from the bale using high volume instrument technology (HVI data) is then matched to the bale barcode and is provided to the gin, so that every US bale of cotton shipped to the spinner carries with it information on quality, gin location, producer and field identification. Each bale has a unique number and this quality tracking system is important to the farmer because higher quality cotton sells for a higher price; it's important for the spinner since they match the fiber quality of each incoming bale to the yarn content and quality they need to achieve for their customers; and this tracking system is important to consumers because you can be sure Cleaner Cotton™ is identified and differentiated from conventional cotton.
California grows two main varieties of cotton:
San Joaquin Valley Acala
Acala is a special type of Upland cotton. San Joaquin Valley Acala is grown only in the Central Valley, and commands a premium price because it has a long and silky fiber, which is used to make finer yarns and higher quality products. (1/30's yarns and finer, ring spun yarns, fine twills, shirtings and finer knits)
California produces approximately 90% of the nation's Pima cotton. Pima is considered the Cadillac of cotton in the U.S. and rivals fine Egyptian cotton. Pima cotton is an extra long fiber and particularly silky. It is used for the finest quality yarns (1/40's and finer) and goes into dress shirts, bed linens and underwear.
SCP farmers grow both these types of cotton as Cleaner Cotton™.
Cotton Acreage in California:
Cotton production in California has faced many challenges, including water shortages, weather fluctuations, foreign competition, pressure from other higher value crops, and shrinking cotton infrastructure for processing in US.
As a result, cotton acreage in California has been in a steady decline, although the acreage has increased this season (2011). At the industry's height in the 1950s and 1960s, growers cultivated more than 1 million acres annually, producing a crop worth more than $1 billion a year to the California agriculture economy. By 2009, according to National Ag Statistics, cotton acreage in California was down to about 200,000 and the fiber's economic value to the state of California had fallen to $277.3 million.
Tree crops, vines, alfalfa and corn have replaced the acreage that used to be dedicated to cotton.