Cotton was never quite king in California, but it has always been an important crop for the West. Even today, California produces by far the most Pima cotton (known for its extra-long premium fiber) in the U.S. But cotton production in The Golden State is on a decline for the fourth straight year, as farmers find it increasingly hard to justify growing amid a multiyear drought.
According to data from the Economic Research Service (ERS), the California cotton crop for 2015 is projected to be 110,000 acres of extra-long staple (ELS) cotton, with another 40,000 acres of Upland cotton. That’s 29% and 21% lower than 2014, respectively.
The lower projected plantings would also make California’s total cotton area its lowest since 1932. The percentage of decline is similar to a decline in 2007-09, when the state also suffered a multiyear statewide drought.
ERS notes that the current drought, which originated in 2012, remains a major concern for agricultural producers as reservoir levels and water supplies have been reduced significantly. Record-low water allocations in 2014 mean farmers have to be more choosy about the type and amount of crops they produce – a move that often puts cotton on the California chopping block.
"It's a matter of limited water we have and where we put it," Mark Watte recently told CNBC. Watte farms cotton, almonds and other crops in California's drought-stricken San Joaquin Valley. "Cotton is quite a ways down in the pecking order. Our tree crops is where the water goes first."
Acres are generally down across the Cotton Belt for 2015. Only Oklahoma is predicting to plant more cotton acres than last year. The latest USDA Prospective Plantings report estimates 9.399 million acres of Upland cotton and 150,000 acres of Pima cotton for 2015.