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Drought Exacerbates California's Shrinking Cotton Crop

Kimberly Vardeman / Wikimedia Commons

A partly harvested cotton field.

Kimberly Vardeman / Wikimedia Commons

The cotton crop in California has been shrinking for the last decade, but this year's planting could be the smallest since early last century.

California's cotton dates back to the early 1900's. The crop thrives in the San Joaquin Valley's rich soils and dry warm climate.

Roger Isom is the CEO of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations. He says California's cotton is both the highest quality and the highest yielding product in the world.

But, there's a missing ingredient.

"Water. Water's the number one issue," says Isom.

In the early 2000s Fresno County produced more cotton than anywhere else in the country. But, today it's barely on the map.

"If you drive from Mendota on Highway 33, south to I-5 it's barren land," says Isom. "There's tumble weeds, the only thing grown out there now is solar farms. "

Cotton took a huge hit in recent years because environmental regulations that protect the delta smelt and migrating salmon reduce water flows to parts of the Central Valley.

The drought aggravated the situation.

"My dad used to grow cotton, alfalfa and barley," says Dan Errotabere, a second generation farmer in western Fresno County. "Today you simply couldn't make that work." 

Growers like Errotaberre are planting higher value crops like almonds and pistachios in lieu of cotton.

At one time he had 3,000 acres of cotton. This year he planted less than 500.

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