Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Let’s Give a Big Hand to These Cotton Pickers from the Big City

 We talk a lot about promoting cotton grown and garments sewn in the U.S.A. 

How about adding this twist to the slogan: “Grown, Hand-picked and Sewn in the U.S.”
Hand-picked? In the United States?

Brown colored cotton grown in San Joaquin Valley.
You probably thought U.S. cotton is harvested by machine; usually those large harvesters that pluck the fiber from the bolls in the fields of dried out plants. Experts will tell you roughly 100  percent of U.S. cotton is mechanically harvested, with a few exceptions. Australian and Israeli cotton also is exclusively machine harvested, according to an International Cotton Advisory Committee report called “Harvesting and Ginning of Cotton in the World.”

But more than two-thirds of the world’s cotton is harvested by hand – with countries such as India and Turkey all hand-picked. The advantage is hand picking preserves the fiber characteristics better. Since there is no stress on the fiber, cotton products are more durable than machine-harvested cotton.

A sunny fall day was perfect weather for hand picking cotton.
One of the rare exceptions in the U.S. is a small field of cotton on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley. In recent years, Windfall Farms has invited community members, including fashion design students, to help hand pick its unique colored cotton.

Last week, about three dozen students and advisors from Otis College of Art and Design in Southern California and a small group of community members spent several hours picking brown and green colored cotton grown on eight rows, each some 50 yards long. (Established in 1918, Otis College is the first independent art school in Los Angeles.)

Students couldn't imagine hand harvesting day after day.
With the sun shining brightly and mid-morning temperatures hovering in the 60s, the picking crew grabbed plastic buckets and headed for the rows of colorful cotton. Some wore gloves. Most used their bare fingers to pluck the fluffy fiber from the bolls. They were careful to keep the browns and greens separated.

 “It was surprising easy. The hardest part was just being in the heat and under the sun,” said Arthur, one of the students. It seems like it would be intense labor to be doing it. Hours on end. I couldn’t imagine doing it more than an hour at a time.”
The group harvested brown, green and white cotton fiber.

Field scout Carlos Silva joined the work party. “They said it was easy but a lot of work. They could appreciate how it is done (in other countries).”

 For most, this was the first time they had been in a farm field – let alone a cotton field at harvest time. A number of students were not quite dressed for the occasion, wearing black clothing and even dresses.
Carlos lauded the crew for their eagerness to help with the harvest and get a flavor of how pickers in country such as India work day-long in the cotton fields. Everyone is familiar with the final cotton product – a T-shirt, a pillow case or a dress. Cotton pick’n day gave them a new-found appreciation for where the fiber comes from and the sweat-equity that goes into harvesting it.

Unloading a five gallon bucket of cotton in a storage bin.
Despite the warm sun, the dirt and dust and the sore fingers, the crew worked like troopers. One student summed up the experience for the class: "It was very enlightening."

As the students and instructors boarded their bus and headed back to L.A., they can take pride knowing they could be at the forefront of a “Grown, Hand-picked and Sewn” movement in the U.S.A.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Almond Crack-out Today Helps Growers with Their IPM Planning for Tomorrow

About 200 almonds are ready to be cracked open.
NOW bored into this hard shell nut.
 Crack, crack, crack…

One by one a pile of fresh almonds pulled from the floor of Valley orchards were cracked by field scout Jenna Horine. As the shells piled up, Jenna carefully examined each one and occasionally jotted down a few notes.

Each fall, Jenna embarks on this laborious, but important task for almond growers participating in the San Joaquin Sustainable Farming Project. Called crack- out, this tedious process of checking hundreds of nut samples collected from orchards in the program during the summer harvest helps determine pest management activities next year.

Bugs damaged this almond kernel.
Jenna is looking for signs of damage to the almond kernels caused by pests such as navel orangeworm (NOW), ants and peach twig borer (PTB). Sometimes, the evaluation can be tricky. Jenna points out University of California Integrated Pest Management guidelines point out that NOW and PTB often infest the same nuts. NOW bores into the nut while PTB doesn’t. As a result, NOW feeding on the kernel will mask that of the PTB.

Once Jenna is finished with the crack-out, each grower is given a record of her findings. The results also are a good way for growers to compare information with the grade sheet from the processor.

Overall, the early results indicate the nuts are coming out clean. “So far everyone did pretty well. Some people though had NOW damage,” Jenna says.

For UC IPM advisors, almond crack-out is a practice that all almond growers should embrace. It’s a lot of work, but it will pay off in the long run.
Jenna shows how NOW ate the whole nut.

Meanwhile, Jenna reminds us that growers aren’t kicking back after the harvest. This is an important IPM stage for evaluation and planning for the next season. Contrary to the disclaimers made by investment advisors, past performance can be a predictor of future results. So growers should check their monitoring records from this season and start preparing for dormant season activities.
Branch has shot hole borer damage.

Growers should be busy monitoring for weeds and almond diseases. And we can’t stress it enough: they need to remember orchard sanitation is very important, especially getting rid of those mummy nuts.

Here are a few some tips from UC IPM:
  •  Look for nuts or leaves stuck in trees well after harvest. This indicates hull rot.
  • Monitor for rust lesions. If you find them, apply zinc sulfate to reduce overwintering leaves.
  • After the fall rains start, monitor for shot hole lesions with fruiting structures. Treat according to UC IPM guidelines.
  • Survey and record results on weeds. If you plan to use a preemergence herbicide in rows, be sure to time it properly. 
    Alamond leaf rust. (UC IPM photos)
    Evidence of hull rot damage.
Yes, a farmer’s job is never done.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Alfalfa Field Rally Takes to the Sky to Shed Light on Farming, Central Valley Water Issue

Farmers and their supporters stage a water a rally. (Calif. Ag Today photo)

It’s tough to bring some 200 farmers together in the middle of a green alfalfa field on a sun-drenched day during the harvest season, especially for a photo shoot complete with speeches.

But that’s what happened recently in a field just west of Firebaugh. That’s the power of water, that valuable and recently diminishing commodity that is the life-blood of farmers and the crops they grow.

Field scout Carlos Silva joined the crowd on October 3 in an event organized by Steve Malanca, general manager of Thomason Tractor Co. in Firebaugh with the help of the Westlands Water District. The event demonstrated the economic impact to alfalfa as well as farming as a whole if there isn’t enough water, Carlos reports.

A helicopter took an aerial photos and a video of the group.
To illustrate the point, a helicopter hovered over the gathering for an aerial photo and video that organizers hope – with the help of the Firebaugh High FFA – will go viral over the Internet to show the value of water to San Joaquin Valley agriculture and the local and state economy.

An alfalfa field near Firebaugh served as the rally backdrop.
It was an impressive showing, Carlos says, likening it to a community rally combined with a farm equipment trade show. Yes, there were tractors, haulers, trucks, harvesters and even cows – the No. 1 consumer of alfalfa – spread across the field as farmers, Firebaugh FFA students and ag representatives held banners and smiled at the helicopter film crew. We’ll let you know when the video is posted. When it’s out be sure to look for Carlos in the crowd.

Of course, everyone knows we’ve had two dry years. This year, farmers on the west side of the Valley saw their water allocations from the Westland Water District dwindle to 20 percent. Officials predict farmers could face a zero allotment if there’s another dry winter and spring.

Farm equipment and even some cows were on display.
In the coming months, farmers will be facing some tough decisions. November and December is when growers will be making their plans for the 2014 season. Unless we have some Noah’s Arc-like weather, those plans will have to take in to account getting even less water next year.
No one is looking forward to that.

To put everything in perspective, the blog California Ag Today quoted Firebaugh City Manager Ken McDonald telling the rally: “There is no doubt that Firebaugh is one small part of this big regional effort and without water and without farming, Firebaugh wouldn’t be in existence.” Neither would farms.


Monday, October 7, 2013

When Is It Time to Harvest? After 259,200 minutes

 259,200 minutes, 259,200 moments so dear. 259,200 minutes – how do you measure a half-year in cotton. In seedlings, in squares, in bolls, in bales of fiber. In 290,200 minutes – how do you measure a half-year in the life of cotton.

How about harvest? How can you measure the life of cotton? How about harvest?
Cotton seedling in the spring.
Then comes the square.
Yes indeed -- with apologies to the Broadway musical Rent some 259,200 minutes, or 180 days, have passed since San Joaquin Valley growers planted their first cotton seeds. And, as field scout Carlos Silva reports, harvest time has now arrived. In the coming weeks, we’ll see more and more harvesters click-clacking away in the fields, plucking puffy white fiber from the cotton plants.
Cotton bolls in the summer.
Bales of cotton after fiber is ginned.
I n fact, a few growers even got a September morning start on cotton picking, firing up their harvesters exactly a week ago. By the end of the week, Carlos saw a few fields already picked and the dried plants cut down in preparation for plow down.

It looks like a fairly early harvest for some growers, Carlos says. To recap: Cotton is usually planted in April and it takes about 180 to 200 days to reach full maturity and become ready for harvest in October.

Of course, this October harvest-fest varies from area to area and from field to field. While some growers started harvesting on September 30, others are still waiting for their defoliated field to dry up enough for picking. Carlos points out one grower is just starting to defoliate now.
Remember, defoliation helps the mature bolls open fully and the lint can get freed from the leaves. This process helps the harvesters pick the cotton cleanly off the plants. Usually cotton is ready for harvest about one to two weeks after defoliants are applied.

Valley growers are already harvesting their cotton.
This season, an estimated 92,000 acres of acala/upland cotton are predicted to be harvested in California, down 35 percent from 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 310,000 bales are expected to be produced, a 39 percent decline from last year.
 For high-quality pima cotton, bale production is predicted to drop 20 percent to 600,000 bales. The forecast for harvested acreage is 186,000 acres, down 17 percent from 2012.

Buses again will take visitors to the cotton fields this year.
Speaking of harvest, the Sustainable Cotton Project’s annual Cotton Tour remains popular as ever. While it is booked up right now, you can still get on the waiting list for this popular free event, which provide a unique opportunity to get an inside look at cotton production – from the field to the gin. Set for Tuesday, October 29, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., the tour begins at the Best Western Apricot Inn at Interstate 5 and West Panoche Road, about 23 miles southwest of Firebaugh. For more information, go to the Sustainable Cotton Project website.