Monday, October 30, 2017

In a snapshot and a snapshot and another snapshot … Cotton Farm Tour Visitors Capture the Moment

 “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

 While this idiom expressing a single photograph can explain a complex idea may be a cliché, the phrase is quite apt to the October 24 Cotton Tour in the northern San Joaquin Valley.

Let’s take it even further: If one photo is worth a thousand words, then thousands of photos are worth a small fortune.

Indeed, the 55 tour participants riding in a comfortable charter coach bus resembled a gathering of paparazzi instead of fashion industry representatives.

 At every stop during the Sustainable Cotton Project’s annual event, men and women alike pulled out smart phones, digital cameras and video recorders to capture every moment during the day-long event that explored every aspect of California cotton production. In a snap, they probably shot thousands of photos of cotton, more cotton and even more cotton. Get the picture: Cotton was the paparazzi-like celebrity of the day.

A healthy, green rosemary plant growing in a newly planted perennial hedgerow: Snap, snap

Brown colored cotton bursting out of a boll: Snap, snap.

Windfall Farms co-owner Frank Williams standing among his colored cotton plants, explaining water issues, cotton production and anything farming: Snap, snap.

Dr. Pete Goodell, University of California Integrated Pest Management extension advisor emeritus, describing the qualities of cotton fiber: Snap, snap.

Tour participants getting a rare chance to walk among mature cotton plants, hand-pick the fluffy fiber and even feel the sticky honeydew residue on plant leaves – a condition created by whiteflies:  Snap, snap.

Westside Farmers Co-op Gin manager Matt Toste describing how modules of freshly harvested cotton are transported from the field and processed inside the bustling, noisy gin, adding it takes just 45 seconds from start to finish for the seed and trash to be separated from the fiber and compressed into 500-pound bales that shrink-wrapped and loaded onto flat bed trailers: Snap, snap.

Visitors strolling through the gin, feeling a heated fiber, inspecting the machinery and control boards and watching bales being formed: Snap, snap.

Fashion industry representatives smiling and clutching an armload of just-picked cotton before the fiber heads into the gin for processing: Snap, snap.

Tour participants walking outside the gin, inspecting the pile of separated cotton seeds used for livestock feed.

Cleaner Cotton farmer Dan McCurdy talking about cotton production and the harvest,  describing how his new harvester picks the fiber and creates the round modules stored alongside the fields for transport to the gin: Snap, snap.

“I’ve never seen a cotton farm. It was really interesting,” said Anna Rotty of Williams Sonoma in San Francisco. It was a first for most of the visitors, who closed out the tour with a few light-hearted Kodak moments: Snap, snap.

 Closing out the day: “It was fascinating,” Merrilee Avila of Nike said before she and her colleagues headed back to Portland, Oregon. She then paused and added: “I learned my job depends on agriculture.”

Monday, October 23, 2017

Time to Get Crackin’ on Mummies, Orchard Sanitation

The folks in the fancy suits on Wall Street call it ROI – short for return on investment.

Farm folks put it simpler terms: Is my time and money worth it now so I don’t lose money later?
Take the case of almond orchard sanitation and mummy nuts. Those are the stubborn nuts that refused to fall to the ground during shaking – even after a couple shakings during the harvest.

One long-time almond grower tells field scout Jenna Mayfield that he always sends crews out with hand poles after harvest to scour his orchard and manually knock off the mummies. 

“He swears up and down that he gets his money back the next season by doing orchard sanitation,” Jenna says. Getting rid of mummies lessens the likelihood of pest damage in next year’s crop. He also saves in pest treatment costs as well.

“There’s no reason for growers to wait until February,” Jenna says.
Knocking off mummies. (UC IPM photo)
Indeed, orchard sanitation remains important to control navel orangeworm (NOW) and protect against aflatoxin contamination. Growers should head into the orchard and check for mummies, where NOW can get their foothold.  As a rule, according to University of California Integrated Pest Management guidelines, trees should be cleaned to less than two mummies per tree.

UC IPM experts and UC Cooperative Extension farm advisers recommend sweeping or blowing the fallen mummies into center of the rows between trees. Then they should be destroyed by discing or mowing.

In the meantime, Jenna is preparing to inspect the estimated 4,000 almonds collected on the ground in orchards in Fresno, Merced and Madera counties during harvest and checking for signs of pest damage. Called crack-out, the task is a rite of fall for Jenna.

This season, Jenna collected four large boxes of almonds for crack-out. One by one, Jenna will crack each almond, peel off the shell and carefully examined the kernel and then jot down a few notes for growers. This tedious process of checking each of the 0 samples she collected helps guide pest management activities for the next year.

Jenna Mayfield will be cracking  lots of almonds.
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.

In crack-out Jenna will look for signs of Peach twig borer (PTB) and navel orangeworm (NOW), which often like to infest the same nut. But NOW bores into the nut and PTB doesn’t. The NOW damage will cover over the PTB damage. NOW damage is represented by a webbing and powder-like remnants. She also will be keeping an eye out for signs of ant damage.

 After Jenna compiles her record, it will be up to growers to follow up on trouble spots and take appropriate steps to prevent pest problems in 2018. It’s hard to believe we’re almost into 2018.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Where in the World Do You Find Colored Cotton? Firebaugh of Course

Leisure time during harvest time is a rare commodity for farmers.

This time of year, they’re often out of the house before sunrise and backin the house after sundown. Needless to say playing golf, knitting, wood working or traveling takes a hiatus during the harvest season.

But a pair of Firebaugh growers has found time over the years to mix a little business and pleasure by growing a mini-field of colored cotton. Meet Frank Williams and Mark Fickett, owners of Windfall Farms in Firebaugh.

Windfall Farms brown colored cotton.
For years, they have tried innovative and environmentally friendly farm practices, including planting perennial hedgerows and inter-planting cotton and alfalfa for pest management.

It’s a labor of love for the two growers. This hobby requires a commitment to have the fiber picked by hand and ginned separately from conventional white cotton. Gins and harvesters can’t have a trace of colored fiber left on their equipment which could mix with conventional white cotton – whether it’s a John Deere harvester or a heating unit at the gin.

In past years, the colored cotton was sold to a small Biddeford, Mainespecialty yarn company called Quince &Co, which produces cotton, wool and other natural yarns.The Sustainable Cotton Project (SCP) helped Frank and Mark make the connection the company,

Frank and Mark are long-time participating SCP growers and supporters of the organization’s efforts to reduce the use of the most toxic chemicals used in cotton production. Quince &Co. has developed a blend of SCP’s Cleaner Cotton™ and brown and green colored cotton available on their website at

Colored cotton not quite as rare as Hope Diamond.
On its blog, Quince & Co has been writing about the various hurdles it has faced to develop a responsible, U.S.-sourced cotton yarn. “Today, the solution: Cleaner Cotton™, and the amazing people who bent over backwards to work our small order into their processes and help make our new yarn, Willet, a reality. We couldn't be more excited!”

Naturally colored cotton is bred to yield fiber colors other than white commercial cotton. The natural color precludes the need for dyes and the fiber can feel softer than the usual white cotton. Colored cotton, which traces its origin in the Americas to the South American Andes some 5,000 years ago, is still rare because of the special processing requirements (colored cotton is shorter and weaker fiber, which makes it difficult to be spun in heavy machinery). 

To help people learn about colored cotton, Frank and Mark welcome a group of visitors, including those from major fashion brands, to visit their small plot of colored cotton. It’s a rare treat – almost like checking out the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. But in this case, you can feel, touch and pick some of the fiber and bring it home.

Interested in seeing this rare fiber up close?
Cotton Tour participant picks colored cotton.

Just sign up for SCP’s annual Cotton Tour, which is scheduled for Tuesday, October 24. The event provides a unique opportunity to get an inside look at cotton production – from the field to the gin. The event runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and costs $40 per person (the fee covers bus transportation and lunch at the Cardella Winery in Mendota). For more information or to register go to the following link:

Be sure to say hey if you join the tour.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Six Months Later – It’s Finally Time to Pick Cotton

Sometimes it seems the time would never arrive for the cotton harvest. But cotton picking is in full swing.
 You can see harvesters criss-crossing fields, picking puffy white fiber from the cotton plants. You see cotton modules parked along the field margins and ready to be hauled to nearby gins.

Cotton harvesters are working around the clock.
CreThroughout the month, crews will be working around the clock, seven days a week to beat the chance of inclement weather playing havoc with growers.

You have to go back to April when growers planted the seeds for this year’s crop. Then it takes about 180 to 200 days to reach full maturity and become ready for harvest in October. Of course, the timing of the harvest varies from locale to locale. A few growers got an early jump and started harvesting in late September, says field scout Damien Jelen. But October is the big month.

It has been a fairly normal season for cotton. While water is always a constant worry, supplies seem to be plentiful for irrigation. That is a welcome relief after five years of drought.

 Growers responded to the wet year by boosting cotton acreage this season.

Growers planted more cotton this season compared to 2016.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast a nice bump up in California cotton production this year. The upland/acala cotton harvest is estimated at 90,000 acres, up 45.2 percent from 62,000 in 2016.

For high-quality pima cotton, the USDA predicts 208,000 acres will be harvested in 2017, a 32.5 percent increase from 154,000 acres last year. California continues to dominate the Pima market, planting 85 percent of the variety in the United States.
Speaking of harvest, the Sustainable Cotton Project’s Annual Cotton Tour is coming up. The event provides a unique opportunity to get an inside look at cotton production – from the field to the gin. Set for Tuesday, October 24, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the cost is $40 a person, which covers bus transportation and lunch at the Cardella Winery in Mendota. For more information or to register go to the following link: