Don Cameron’s three decades of farming on the West Side of California’s San Joaquin Valley can be defined by the numbers 3 and 26.

When the 59-year-old California native started farming near Helm in 1981, his crop list totaled three: cotton, small grains and alfalfa (and two of those were iffy on some fields at Terranova Ranch).

“We had fields where alfalfa and wheat wouldn’t grow” because the white soils were virtually devoid of nutrients and loaded with salts, says Cameron, who grew up in Redding and Fresno, where he graduated from high school, then went to California State University, Fresno to obtain a degree in biology

Today, his crop maps identify 26 crops on the 7,000 acres he farms under the banners of Terranova and Prado Farms.

Crops like carrots, a multitude of seed crops, 1,000 acres of wine grapes, onions, 1,600 acres of processing tomatoes contracted to four canneries, prunes, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, and many more now flourish where wheat would once not germinate.

In recognition of his leadership in California agriculture, and his accomplishments in cotton production, Cameron 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.

“We have always turned under crop residue, and that has helped tremendously,” Cameron says. “Years ago, when growers used to burn wheat stubble, we turned it under. Now most everyone does.”

Year after year of growing deep-rooted cotton and alfalfa also opened up the ground as roots bore into the tight soils, creating tunnels for deep water penetration and leaching.

“It takes a lot of time to reclaim ground,” Cameron says, but it has resulted in limitless cropping options today.

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.

Pima is now the predominant variety in the valley, and “has kept cotton in California,” Cameron says. “When upland prices went so far down, premium Pima prices kept us in cotton.” This year, Cameron is chairman of Supima, the grower supported marketing and promoting organization for American Pima cotton.

Pima had been grown in Arizona for decades before it came into the valley, and didn’t yield as well as upland varieties — generally about 60 percent of what desert growers could produce from upland cotton.

Cameron recalls that his peers in the desert sarcastically wished California cotton growers “good luck” growing Pima. But, Pima did much better in California.

The Extra Long Staple (ELS) cotton does well on heavy ground, of which there is plenty in the valley. Cameron likes Pima because he says it can tolerate water stress better than Acala.

“You can hold back water more with Pima and set more bolls that with Acala. Once Acala blooms out the top, it will not recover. Pima will set more bolls with stress — it’s more forgiving than Acala.”

Although Pima has been a Godsend for many cotton growing areas of the valley, it isn’t suited everywhere. “We have lighter ground where Pima will not do well, so we still need Acala for the valley,” Cameron says.

Acala has actually benefitted from Pima, which is roller-ginned versus saw-ginned. Growers, marketers and ginners have discovered that certain roller-ginned Acala varieties can demand a nice 10 to 12 cents per pound premium from textile mills, which utilize it for its stronger, longer fiber. Saw-ginned SJV Acala still has demand in the world market as well.

Cameron believes with Pima and roller-ginned Acala, the valley is returning to its place of prominence as a high quality cotton producing area, assuring cotton a future in the valley.