Eleven Mid-South cotton producers spent almost a week touring California farming operations during an annual National Cotton Council (NCC) tour that next year will celebrate 30 years of giving growers a glimpse into agriculture across the country.
Dubbed the Producer Information Exchange (P.I.E.) Program, the regional tours have exposed more than 1,100 U.S. cotton producers to innovative production practices in cotton regions outside of their own. This year’s program brought growers to California from Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, where they saw crops including almonds, alfalfa, cotton, carrots, grapes, lettuce, onions, olives, peppers, pistachios and tomatoes.
Each year the tour begins its week with a visit to the Fresno office of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association, and the Western Agricultural Processors Association, two separate trade associations managed by Roger Isom.
Over the course of the week the visiting farmers crisscrossed the San Joaquin Valley on a tour bus where they made stops at various farms and saw many more from the windows of the bus. They were also hosted at lunch and dinner stops by farmers who in years past have taken the same NCC tour in different regions of the United States.
On the first evening of the tour the group’s dinner hosts were served garlic bread and barbecued New York steaks made famous by Kenny and Karen Carvalho in Tranquility.
The barbecue dinner at the Carvalho’s brings out a number of area farmers and ranchers, who seem to enjoy meeting with the visiting farmers as much as those growers enjoy the opportunity to learn about their growing operations.
“When I went back to your area the folks there were very hospitable,” said Kenny Carvalho to the group of visiting cotton growers.
Derric Kirshenmann, a Shafter grape grower who together with Kenny and Juli Kirshenmann, hosted the group for a lunchtime visit and home-made tacos on Thursday, said this is just one way to give back after receiving similar hospitality during the NCC P.I.E. tour he attended several years ago.
During their Monday morning visit to Isom’s CCGGA office in Fresno the group was offered a glimpse into the high cost of farming in California that is borne out through expensive utility costs, onerous regulatory constraints and the high cost of labor.
For instance, growers were told that California cotton growers pay over $5 in electrical costs alone just to gin a bale of cotton. By comparison, Mid-South growers pay about $3.50 in electricity costs to gin the same bale.
Isom’s hour-long overview of business costs and regulatory burdens against California farmers is oftentimes shocking news to growers from other regions of the country.
“After hearing that stuff, some of the things we gripe about back home isn’t so bad,” said Sumner, Miss. grower Graham Flautt of Isom’s presentation.
As California’s cotton crop looks to be challenged this year by Lygus and aphids, with some growers already into multiple sprays to control the cotton pests, at least one of the Mid-South growers on the tour could have a good Upland crop this year.
Caleb Miller of Leachville, Ark. says his 4,000-acre Upland crop “is probably one of the best stands we’ve had in 10 years.”
Miller’s entire Upland crop of Deltapine varieties is entirely irrigated with yield averages between two and three bales.
In spite of the good growing season, Miller said it didn’t start out that way as too much rain early on kept him from planting as much cotton as he would have liked. In its place he planted soybeans.
Miller also grows peanuts, rice and corn.
One of the stops along the tour included Jerry Salvador’s Pima fields in Tranquility. This year Salvador has 200 acres of Phytogen 881 on minimum till. PHY 881 is a new variety of extra-long staple (ELS) cotton that last year yielded Salvador 3.75 bales per acre.
“We did fantastic last year,” Salvador said. “This year it’s not going to be that much.”
Salvador blames aphids and Lygus for what could be a yield drag this year.
“This is too early for aphid problems,” Salvador said.
Tour participant Mack Zarecor, a grower from Yorkville, Tenn., grows strictly Upland varieties by Phytogen in his region, which he says is “about as far north as you can grow cotton in that region.”
“We’ve got the cleanest crop we’ve had in years,” he said of his 1,100-acre cotton crop.
Last year’s cotton yields for Zarecor averaged 1,250 pounds per acre.
“That’s good for our area,” he said. “We typically hope for two bales.”
He also grows corn, soybeans and beef cattle.
What stuck out to Zarecor and others during the tour was the variety of crops produced in California, which for some was their first-ever visit to the Golden State. They were amazed at the numerous different varieties of seed lettuce they saw at Don Cameron’s Terra Nova Ranch near Helm, Calif.
“This is just amazing,” Zarecor said while at Terra Nova.
Another popular stop for the growers was a table grape operation near Shafter, Calif. where workers were busy harvesting several varieties of grapes destined for domestic and international markets.
Sam Shackelford of Montrose, Ark. was amazed at the variety of crops he saw during the farm tours.
Shackelford has 300 acres of cotton, 850 acres of corn and 2,000 acres of soybeans in his home state.
This is his first year growing cotton, which he says so far is doing well. He hasn’t had to irrigate once this season as the rain has kept up with the needs of his DP1518 Upland variety.
The Mid-South growers also made stops at a Hanford- area dairy with more than 1,000 cows, visited a winery in Madera, and stopped at a tomato processing facility in Los Banos. Along the way the tour stopped at two research facilities operated by Bayer CropScience.
The producer exchange is sponsored by Bayer each year through a grant to The Cotton Foundation.