Randy Norton remembers the days 20 years ago when there were 60 to 70 cotton farmers in the Gila Valley. Nowadays, he said 10 families grow 90 percent of the cotton. That number might even be lower if not for the special relationship farmers have with cottonseed producers.

Norton is the director of the Graham County Cooperative Extension of the University of Arizona and the resident director of the Safford Agricultural Center. On Wednesday, he hosted an annual field day during which cotton farmers from Graham, Greenlee and Cochise counties spent the morning touring the fields at the agriculture center and four cotton farms in the Gila Valley.

The farmers learned about studies underway at the agriculture center revolving around new herbicides and technology and heard from representatives of five cottonseed producers about their latest experimental varieties. Those producers included Bayer, BASF, Americot, Dynagrow and Corteva. The first two are German companies with U.S. headquarters in St. Louis and Lubbock, Texas, respectively.

Norton said every year the cottonseed producers vie for the chance to partner with a handful of Gila Valley farmers to test new cotton seeds, both long staple cotton like Pima, short staple cotton like Upland and a hybrid of both. Norton and his staff help plant, manage and harvest the crops and collect the data, summarize it and share it. It’s a win-win situation.

Cottonseed producers get to see how their product does out in the real world and farmers, if they’re lucky, get to learn about promising new cotton seeds before their fellow farmers and earn a profit at the same time.

On Wednesday, the farmers listened to the producers’ hopes for their latest varieties, but they also got to see and touch the plants themselves. Although most of the farmers growing experimental cotton only grow it on a small percentage of their land, some of them have as many as 10 varieties growing.

The cottonseed producers were throwing around numbers pertaining to height to node, fruit retention, staples and uniformity, but Norton explained it all comes down to the amount of yield for farmers — how many pounds of lint per acre are they going to get out of this year’s crops?

Every epidermal cell in a cotton seed produces a fiber and the more seeds you have the more fiber, Norton said.

While genetics can help determine how many seeds are in each boll, so can the environment, Norton explained. The trick is to keep the seed numbers high by finding ways to combat heat, pests and other things that can impact the flowers’ pollination. That’s where the University of Arizona and other land grant universities come in — by experimenting with herbicides and technology. Right now the UA is studying technology that can sense plants and spray them with weed killer.

One of the representatives predicted one of her experimental crops is going to yield 1,900 to 2,000 pounds of lint per acre and, if accurate, that’s a really good number, Norton said.

“That’s about four bales of cotton, and a bale of cotton is 490 pounds on average,” he said.

Typically, farmers consider 75 cents a pound for Upland cotton to be good and 90 to 95 cents to be good for Pima cotton. Right now, Upland cotton is hovering around $1.05 per pound and Pima cotton is going for $2 a pound, Norton said. The hybrid Pima-Upland cotton is going for $3.50 a pound.

With the Gila Valley being virtually the only place that grows Pima cotton, that’s particularly good news.

It’s also good for those growing short-staple cotton, too. Norton said 10 million of the 11 million acres of cotton grown in the United States is not long-staple cotton like Pima, it’s actually short-staple cotton used to make things like denim and textiles.

Arizona overall is actually a “very, very small player” when it comes to cotton, Norton said. Of the millions of acres grown across the nation, only 120,000 acres are in Arizona, he said.

“In terms of seed production, planting seed production, we produce probably more planting seed than any other state in the country because of our dry conditions and the lack of diseases we have here,” Norton said.

Seed companies will come to a grower and say they want them to grow a particular variety and they’ll pay them for seeds they collect to plant the next year, he said.

“So we grow a lot of cotton for planting seed in this state. That’s why what we’re doing with these experimental varieties is important because they might come in here and ask a grower to plant a variety that’s not well adapted well to our area because they need the seed,” Norton said.

If a particular seed doesn’t do well in the heat and therefore doesn’t produce much, Norton said they can share that information with local farmers who can then make an informed decision.

“The cotton industry has largely become a nursery for the seed companies, they grow a lot of planting seed here because the quality is very good and it’s good for the growers,” Norton said. “In the past 10 years, I’d probably say five or six of those years that alone sustained the cotton industry in Arizona, otherwise (the number of farmers) would’ve gotten a lot smaller.”

Norton said years ago a cotton variety would be around 10 to 12 years, but nowadays new varieties only last around four or five years before they’re replaced by the next best plant.

The Duncan native said he loves experimenting, but acknowledges it’s a challenging profession.

“We just think we’re driving the bus. We’re not driving the bus. Mother Nature’s driving the bus. Every year is different. The weather’s different,” Norton said. “It’s a biological system. We’re growing plants that respond to the environment and it’s not like we’re in a factory producing widgets where you have total control over everything. We’re growing a plant that’s a living organism and it’s affected by the weather and the climate.”

Load comments