Cotton is a unique crop in that it is both food and fiber. Cottonseed is used as a supplement for dairy feed and is also processed into oil. Uses for cotton fibers range from heavy industrial to fine fabrics. California’s San Joaquin Valley cotton, characterized by long, strong fibers, is among the highest quality in the world. Among U.S. grown varieties, California’s Acala and Pima cottons are preferred for fine fabrics and used in high quality table linens, sheets, bath towels and dress shirts, among other fabric products.
Cotton grows best on fertile, well drained soils that have a good water holding capacity, although it can grow on a variety of soils. In California, cotton is found in the San Joaquin, the Imperial, Palo Verde and Sacramento Valleys. With their warm springs, hot summers, and dry falls, these regions give cotton the long growing season it needs.
Planted in March and April, cotton is commonly furrow irrigated, although sometimes border-strip or sprinkler methods are used with drip irrigation becoming more prevalent in recent years. The cotton plant requires about 180 – 200 days from planting to full maturity and ready for harvest. The irrigation water ceases in August and the plant is allowed to dry out. The crop is entirely mechanically harvested. Over 90% of all California cotton is exported.
Some of the fine products Californians enjoy are made with California cotton, although it is often inaccurately criticized for being a high user of water. To grow the fiber for one cotton diaper requires 105.3 gallons of water, one T-shirt needs 256.6 gallons of water, one bath towel needs 401.4 gallons of water, a man’s dress shirt requires 414.5 gallons of water, and 987 gallons of water are required for one pair of jeans. Although these water figures appear high, per acre, cotton uses approximately 2.5 acre feet of water on average which is much less than the majority of the other crops grown in its growing regions.
A Guidebook to California Agriculture,
Scheuring, University of California Press, 1993 Calcot, Ltd.
California Agriculture Statistical Review 1992,
California Department of Food and Agriculture, July 1993
California Cotton Growers Association