Monday, December 15, 2014

Education Happens When City Folks Meet Farm Folks Down on the Valley Farms

Chartered buses took Cotton Tour participants to the fields.
Every fall, dozens of city folks put on their walking shoes and hats, slap on some sunscreen and hop onto buses for a day-long tour our “farmside.”

The group strolled through a harvested almond orchard, stopped by cotton fields, watched a cotton picker in action and toured a cotton gin around the Firebaugh region of the San Joaquin Valley.
For most, it’s a first time setting foot on a cotton field. And it’s the first time meeting a genuine farmer in the field (rather a grower selling produce at neighborhood farmers market).

Welcome to one of the most unique farm events in the U.S.A. – an all-day Cotton Farm Tour offered by the Sustainable Cotton Project. The tour has remained free and open to the public for years, thanks to support from retailers such as The North Face and Gap Inc. and the State Water Resources Control Board.

This fall, 75 people, including a small contingent from Japan, joined the tour. Many of the participants came from the fashion and design industries to learn first-hand the steps of the “dirt-to-shirt” production process.
An almond orchard captured the attention of folks.

Visitors saw how the drought impacted a pomegranate orchard.
They learned about the cotton harvest, and a perennial hedgerow – arguably the largest and western most hedgerow in the Valley, along with challenging farm issues such as water availability. They oohed and aahed at the sight of young sequoias and redwoods thriving in the hot Valley.

“We’re surprised the redwoods are still alive. The Valley floor is so dry. There are giant sequoias too,” grower Frank Williams of Windfall Farms explained during the October 30 tour.
Frank Williams (right) talks about his perennial hedgerow.

The eager participants jotted down notes meticulously, snapped an endless stream of photos and picked cotton fresh off the plant. They collected cottonseed and lint from a cotton gin. They learned one rectangular cotton module weighs about 20,000 pounds and a round module is a one-fourth of the size of the rectangular one. They learned bales of cotton are tagged for identification and tracking purposes. And they learned how cotton harvesters are huge six-figure investments.

“I was impressed how fast the ginning (process) goes. I thought it would take all day to do one bale,” said Jessica Teitelbaum of Coyuchi, a Berkeley retailer specializing in sustainable home furnishings. (She learned a gin can produce 20 bales of cotton in one hour.) The tour helps “you understand how many steps it takes and how many people it takes in cotton production.”
Grower Doug Goodman talks about the cotton harvest.

Getting a first-hand look at cotton picker in action.
Brian Glueck of North Face learned close up how important water is to agriculture after seeing a water-stressed pomegranate orchard and acres and acres of fallow fields due to the severe drought. “It was really evident.” Takahiro Tokiyma of the Tokyo Towel Wholesalers Association agreed: “So little water is here.”

Cathie Colson of the Pajaro Valley Quilt Guild was surprised by the high cost of farming – from the cost of equipment to the price for water. “I have a better idea of the factors that influence the price of fabric.”

Calling it an “unforgettable experience,” participant Patty Eaton said she “learned about the people in the Cleaner Cotton business and about the challenges of the drought, markets and a lot of details about sustainable practices.”
Checking out Pacific Ginning Co. operation.

Finally, one student from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising summed up the day: “to have a hands-on experience really takes my knowledge to the next level.”

We can certainly say the Cotton Tour planted some valuable seeds of knowledge.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Cotton Gins Cranking Out Bales by the Truckload

The factory sits some 10 miles east of bustling Interstate 5, surrounded by acres of fertile farmland.

On one end, dozens of round and rectangular cotton modules dot the flat landscape. On the other end, a towering plant operating almost around the clock processing this year’s cotton harvest. Newly baled lint is loaded on flatbed trailers, ready to be shipped. A conveyor belt dumps cotton trash – everything from crumbled leaves to twigs – and fuzzy cotton seeds into large mounds.

Ron Nimmo of Pacific Ginning explains cotton gin process.
 “We started operating at the end of October and we’ll probably operate into December or January,” explains Ron Nimmo, manager of Pacific Ginning Company in Firebaugh. “We get cotton as close as 12 miles and as far as 100 miles away.”

In the end, his plant will produce approximately 45,000 bales of cotton – enough fiber to make 14.6 million pairs of jeans. That’s almost enough to give every person in Los Angeles four pairs apiece.
With the cotton harvest wrapped up, the focus has shifted to the three dozen cotton gins operating in California. This is the next step in the dirt to shirt story of cotton.

Most of us remember Yale-educated American Eli Whitney, who patented the cotton gin in 1794, a machine that revolutionized cotton production by speeding up the process of removing seed from the cotton. The cotton gin transformed the industry and turned cotton into the nation’s leading export crop by the mid-1800s.
Whitney’s hand-cranked gin could process 50 pounds of cotton a day – roughly a tenth the size of today’s 500-pound bale. (By the way, “gin” is short for engine. The hand-cranked gin later evolved into a steam-power gin.)

Industrialization and technology today allows gins like Nimmo’s to crank out 20 bales an hour.

For those unfamiliar with the ginning process, here’s a Reader’s Digest version offered up by Nimmo. In his plant, there are 14 steps – or mechanical processes – involved starting with a module feeder that takes the cotton modules (fiber is picked by the harvesters and compressed into a 5,000 to 10,000-pound module in the field) into the factory line.

A Pacific Ginning factory worker wraps a bale of cotton.
Then there are a series of machines that dry, clean and separate, or pull apart, the foreign matter (trash) and seed from the fiber before moisture is put back in to allow a press to squeeze the lint into a 500-pound bale. The bale is finally bagged, or plastic wrapped, and tagged for identification purposes before being loaded by a forklift onto a flatbed trailer ready to be shipped to a warehouse or spinner.

The waste goes to dairies for bedding. Cottonseed goes for livestock and poultry feed as well as oil. About 5 percent of cottonseed is saved for planting.

Cotton trash and seed are piled up outside the ginning plant.
Here’s an interesting fact: 100 pounds of cotton fiber produces about 155 to 160 pounds of seed. For gins, the seed is as good as gold. “The income for the gin comes from selling the seed,” Nimmo says.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Almond Orchard Sanitation Now Can Minimize NOW Damage Later Next Year

Back in the early 1970s, a TV commercial popularized the slogan “You can pay me now or pay me later.”

With December now here, we can adapt that slogan into a post-harvest mantra for almond growers this winter: “You can pay workers to sanitize your orchards now or pay operators for pricey pest control treatments later.” Or worse yet, pay the price later because of lower yields or poor quality nuts.

Following best practices can reduce chemical treatments.
Almond field scout Jenna Horine sees first-hand how a little investment now will yield a nice payoff later – she has the small mountain of cracked almond shells to prove it. With almond crack-out continuing, Jenna says the results from inspecting the almond meat indicate most growers are following good IPM practices.  She encountered few problems in their orchards. Now, she’s finding little damage in the almonds collected in their orchards during the harvest.

A worker knocks off mummies. - UC IPM photo
For the most part, she says, growers are taking the right steps to safeguard their orchards against potential pest problems next year.

Growers who grappled with problems with stink bugs or navel orangeworm (NOW) during the growing season are finding damage in their nuts during crack out.

Jenna joins our friend, retired University of California IPM almond expert Walt Bentley, in stressing the importance of orchard sanitation during the off season. That means knocking off mummy nuts from the trees as well as preventing weeds from growing on the ground.

Here’s what UC IPM says about getting rid of winter homes for NOW:

  • ·          Count the mummy nuts in the trees by examining 20 trees per block.
  • ·          If an average of two or more mummies per tree are found before February 1, remove the  mummies by shaking or hand poling the entire block.
  • ·         Destroy mummies on the ground by either disking or mowing by March 15.

Jenna points out the February 1 in an important cut-off date because growers don’t want to be hitting branches with a pole just before bloom. That will affect the upcoming crop.

Orchard sanitation also involves improvements on the ground. Jenna says treating for pre-emergent weeds is important. You want to get those weeds before the seeds take root. Later, growers need to deal with those weeds that do pop up with post-emergent applications.

Removing mummy nuts from trees is a top priority.
 Meanwhile, Jenna reports the recent rains in the Valley are welcomed by growers. While every bit helps, many growers continue with their post-harvest irrigation.