What is in this article?:
- In recognition of his leadership in California agriculture, and his accomplishments in cotton production, Don Cameron, Helm, Calif., was selected as winner of the 2012 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award for the Western states.
- His farming career has been an ongoing initiative in reclamation, over time fostering a cornucopia of crops. Soil amendments — gypsum, soil sulfur and occasionally sulfuric acid — along with persistent salt leaching and application of 35,000 tons of chicken litter annually from nearby poultry operations, have created land that will grow just about anything.
DON CAMERON inspects a recently delivered load of disposable drip irrigation tape. It is an inexpensive way to irrigate. At the end of the season, the tape is deposited in metal bins and hauled to the recycler.
Diversification keeps the books balanced. “Several years ago we sold grapes for $80 per ton — we couldn’t give away wine grapes back then. Today, wineries are calling for grapes.”
Prices for SJV wine grapes are triple and quadruple what they were just a few years ago. Markets for many of California’s specialty crops can be fickle, and growers hope to have at least some that are in demand in any given year.
“When we started farming here, it was so salty the soils would not drain,” Cameron says. “We used to keep a tractor and chains ready to pull out stuck equipment. One year, a disk got stuck in the fall and the soil was so saturated it was June before we could get close enough to it to pull it out.”
Now, that same ground produces three-bale Acala and Pima cotton and more than 70 tons per acre of processing tomatoes.
Cotton was Cameron’s moneymaker when he started farming there.
“Cotton has bought and paid for a lot of farms on the West Side of the valley over the years,” he says. “Without cotton, we wouldn’t be here farming what we do today.”
But the cotton industry has paid a hefty sacrifice — it almost disappeared as prices faltered and alternative crops flourished economically. Acreage was well over 1 million acres in many years, but when acres fell below 200,000 in 2008, there were fears the crop could be headed for extinction in the San Joaquin Valley after more than 75 years.
Plantings rebounded to a little less than 500,000 acres in 2011. Unfortunately, acreage likely will not exceed that in the future because permanent orchards/vineyards and high value crops like vegetables have taken much of the ground once in cotton.
Still, Cameron believes cotton has a future in the valley, but its fortunes seem to be tied to what established SJV cotton in the world market in the first place: quality.
SJV Acala has long been considered the finest cotton fiber grown in the U.S., but as other areas of the U.S. and the world have improved fiber properties, the market has shrunk for SJV Acala and the premiums it commanded.
However, SJV cotton has returned to the top of the fiber quality roster, largely due to the introduction of Pima into the valley in the 1990s, when SJV growers discovered they could grow just as much Pima as Acala in many areas and get far more money per pound.