Here's a question from a Facebook discussion on the California drought among some of my friends:

"I for one am still wondering why anyone is farming below Fresno, and most the farming there is cotton, isn't cotton a 3rd world crop?"

The last bit is why this qualifies as a subject for this blog. Okay, it was just a question but I already wrote most of this post as a reply to that question on Facebook - and I'm not one to waste decent prose. All things considered, it took me about a half an hour to write the text and then two hours to attach decent references to it.

Cotton is not a Third World crop, unless we're serious about labeling the USA as a Third World country. Cotton is an all-world crop. It is grown everywhere in sub-tropical climates (1). There are cotton species that are native to all continents excluding Antarctica (1, 2). The world's leading grower of cotton is China (3), followed by India and the US trading off for the number two spot (2, 4). The US is the world's largest exporter of cotton (2,5). Texas and California trade off on being the top cotton producer in the country (6, 7, 8).

California became the top producer of cotton after the devastation of the deep South's cotton farms by the boll weevil in the first half of the 20th century (9, 10, 11) . The USDA spend decades eradicating the boll weevil so now cotton is grown again in the South but for many years, the South produced only a fraction of its former production (9, 11).

Cotton has moderate drought and saline soil tolerance but it requires irrigation throughout the American southwest, including CA (12). The southern counties of the Central Valley used to be a major producer of grapes but with the degradation of the soil from irrigation and the introduction of cotton, the vast vineyards south of Fresno are a thing of the past (13, 14, 15). Cotton is a now major crop in Kern, Kings, Tulare, Fresno and Merced counties (8). The Grapevine at the southernmost location of the Central Valley is not named for either of the winding roads that once climbed - or still climb - from the foot of Wheeler Ridge to the Tejon Pass; it got its name in the 19th century for the wild grapes and the subsequent vineyards that once dominated the area (16). Wild grapes still grow there in spots as I discovered the one time I rode my motorcycle up the now abandoned path of the original car route up the pass. I suspect you could find some to munch on if you drove that road right now.

Cotton is a heavily subsidized crop in the US (17) and in terms of labor it's a cheap crop to harvest here due to the prevalence of mechanical pickers. Cotton is still picked by hand in the so-called developing countries (1). If the subsidies were rescinded, American cotton farming would likely implode as we would no longer be more competitive on the world market with South American and Eurasian cotton, despite our lower labor costs to harvest the crop. We don't use all the cotton we grow - we export a huge amount every year. It's really just a cash cow except for when the price of cotton on the world market is low, which is often given that it's grown almost everywhere (e.g., 5).

Cotton requires upwards of 25 inches of precipitation to produce a crop (12). Annual rainfall in the southern San Joaquin Valley is between 5 to 10 inches a year (8). It doesn't take a genius to see that cotton is not a crop we should growing in CA if you want to use the State's water responsibly. Open-range cattle and sheep are probably the best fit for the water and climate of the southern San Joaquin Valley, but compared with subsidized cotton grown with subsidized irrigation water, open-range livestock are less profitable. Only a fraction of the livestock in the southern Central Valley are ranged, however: most are raised in feedlots in Fresno County, fed on high-water-demand grain crops - as anyone who has ever rolled down their windows on I-5 near Coalingua already knows. But that's a whole other topic...

  1. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "cotton", accessed 26 Sept. 2014,
  2. Wikipedia, s. v. "Cotton", accessed 26 Sept. 2014,
  3. International Trade Centre, s. v. "Cotton Exporter's Guide", Chap. 6.2, accessed 26 Sept. 2014,
  4. International Trade Centre, s. v. "Cotton Exporter's Guide", Chap. 1.1, accessed 26 Sept. 2014,
  5. USDA (Sept. 2014), s.v. "Cotton - World Markets and Trade", accessed 26 Sept. 2014,
  6. National Cotton Council of America, s. v. "National & State Cotton Area, Yield and Production", accessed 26 Sept. 2014,
  7. National Cotton Council of America, s. v. "FAQ", accessed 26 Sept. 2014,
  8. California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, s. v. "California Agricultural Statistics Review", accessed 25 Sept. 2014,
  9. Lange, F., Olmstead, A., and Rhode, P. (2008), The Impact of the Boll Weevil, 1892 - 1932, accessed 26 Sept. 2014,
  10. Hunter, W. D., and Coad, B. R. The boll-weevil problem, USDA Farmer's Bulletin 1359, at: UNT Digital Library. Accessed September 26, 2014.
  11. Weber, Devra (1996). Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal. University of California Press, ISBN 978-0-520-91847-4.
  12. National Cotton Council of America (1999), s. v. "Cotton Water Use", Cotton Physiology Today, v. 10 no. 2, accessed 26 Sept. 2014,
  13. Parsons, J. J., 1987Carl Sauer Memorial Lecture: A Geographer Looks at the San Joaquin Valley, accessed 26 Sept. 2014,
  14. Gentry, C. (1968), The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California, ISBN-13: 978-0891740216.
  15. Reisner, M. (1986), Cadillac Desert, ISBN 0-14-017824-4.#
  16. The Ridge Route Organization, s. v. "History", accessed 26 Sept. 2014,
  17. Environmental Working Group (2012), s. v. "Cotton Subsidies", accessed 26 Sept. 2014,