What is in this article?:
- Don Cameron β 2012 Western High Cotton winner
- Drip irrigation
Don Cameron, who farms in California's San Joaquin Valley, is the 2012 High Cotton winner for the Western region.
DON CAMERON is all smiles at this nice field of Acala cotton that went over 3 bales. He advanced contracted it for more than $1.50 per pound.
As loyal as he is to cotton, he knows it must compete economically with other field crops, which it has been able to do lately with the growing use of drip irrigation that has increased yields and reduced costs.
Drip arrived in California in the mid-1970s from Israel, where it was developed. Now, virtually all new orchards and vineyards are established with some sort of micro-irrigation system. Thousands of acres of established permanent crops have also been converted to micro-irrigation to save water and labor.
In recent years, growers have adapted the technology for field crops, most notably high value crops like tomatoes, obtaining amazing yield increases and water savings. Because of the need for rotation, cotton has also benefited from this trend.
Now, however, drip is so inexpensive and the price of cotton much improved, growers are justifying it for cotton alone.
About 80 percent of Cameron’s crops are on drip, including most of the trees and all of the vines. He still must use sprinklers on carrots and onions, and 40 percent of his 700 acres of cotton is on drip.
That will eventually be 100 percent, he says. “Water has become too expensive not to use drip. We must be more efficient with water and fertilizer, which we can deliver via drip. Nitrogen through the drip system goes directly to the roots.”
“I was on a trip to western China a few years ago, looking at processing tomatoes, and I saw growers gravity feed drip lines with water from ditches and no filters. I said we can do that, but improve on it with a pump and a simple filter.”
He utilizes buried main lines with above-ground disposable, recyclable, lay-flat 6 mil drip tape to deliver water to cotton and other crops. Well water is filtered through self-flushing $2,500 screen filters. It cost him only about $250 per acre.
“We can manage plants so much better — uniformity is amazing, and water efficiency is more than 90 percent. Virtually every drop of water is used by the plants. There is no stress unless you manage for stress.”
He irrigates based on a simple evapotranspiration formula that tells him the daily plant water use. All well water is metered so he knows exactly how much is being applied.
It was not uncommon in the past to use 4 or even 5.5 acre feet of water on cotton, Cameron says. Today, he can grow 3-bale cotton with 2.5 acre feet of water or less.
“Drip makes so much sense. We can grow 60-ton tomatoes where we could grow maybe 45 without drip. You’re talking 15 tons more tomatoes per acre on 20 percent less ground than you would with furrow or sprinklers.”
He grows many organic crops, and is one of only two or three organic Pima growers in the U.S. He had 190 acres of organic Pima last year.
Cotton is probably the most challenging crop to grow organically, he says, primarily because of weed control costs.
It was costing $450 to $600 per acre for hand weeding of furrow-irrigated, organic Pima. When he switched to drip, it cut his weeding bill to $227 in 2009. Unfortunately, early spring rains in 2011 sprouted many more weeds and the hand-weeding cost jumped back to $563 per acre.
He has to germinate weeds and mechanically take them out before planting organically certified cotton. Weeds continue to be a challenge after establishment, but with drip, he says, there are far fewer weeds to contend with during the season.
With 26 crops, it is obvious Cameron enjoys challenges. Organic cotton is definitely one, but he believes there is a lucrative market for it. And he goes right to the buyer to sell it.
He invited a group from an organic cotton apparel manufacturing firm to his farm a couple of years ago to show off not just his organic cotton, but conventional cotton as well. It wasn’t just conventional cotton, though — it was genetically modified, herbicide-resistant cotton.
“We drove by a field of biotech cotton, and you would have thought it was radioactive the way they reacted,” he laughs. “They were a rather opinionated group.
“We invited these clearly anti-GMO people to the farm to, first, be transparent about what we are doing and, second, to show them that farmers need to have choices.
“They told me organic cotton uses less water. I showed them that it doesn’t, because we have to pre-germinate weeds so we can get rid of them before we plant. That takes more water than conventional cotton.
“We also pointed out to them that we don’t have to spray biotech trait cotton as much for pests, and that biotech crops are more environmentally friendly.”
Biotech traits can also save a crop, he says. A case in point was a Roundup-resistant Pima (PhytoGen 805RF) field he planted late in 2011 due to a cold, wet spring. Weeds overran the plants at emergence, and he was considering replanting.
“The field was thick with nutgrass — you could hardly see the cotton. I treated twice with Roundup, and the cotton came on strong. It turned out to be one of my best fields; it went over 3 bales.”
Cameron says he probably will never know if he changed any minds in the anti-GMO group that visited his farm, but he believes it was worth the effort to try.
“If we can sway one person to support us down the road when we have an issue, it’s worth the effort,” he says.