California Cotton Crop Takes Another Hit, Imperils Wary Apparel Industry

Tuesday, August 25, 2015
(photo: Kimberly Vardeman via Flickr)

King Cotton was crowned in the South in the 1850s, but some of the royal family migrated to California early in the 20th Century and prospered on farms in the Central Valley. The crop, which uses a ginormous amount of water, peaked here in the early 1980s, before starting an inexorable decline driven by shifting economics and, eventually, drought.

California’s cotton crop, fourth largest in the nation, is expected to decline 24% this year from last. California farmers grew cotton on 1.65 million acres in 1979 and 667,000 acres in 2005, but only expect to harvest 160,000 acres this year. It is the lowest acreage farmed for cotton since the Depression.

Farmers grow two kinds of cotton, Upland and Pima. Upland is the common cotton used in myriad clothing products, while Pima is the fancy, high-priced premium product. California’s crop was almost entirely Upland until it slipped badly entering the new Millennium and was overtaken by Pima in 2007.

It was mostly just a case of Pima production holding steady while Upland fell precipitously, although Pima has also slipped since 2011. Pima is expected to be around 75% of this year’s cotton crop. Part of the overall drop in acreage has been made up in higher yields. Cotton yields have doubled for Upland since 1972, but quadrupled for Pima.

While cotton isn’t as bad as alfalfa and almonds as a water-sucking agricultural product, it is generally grouped with water-intensive crops. CNBC says it takes 2,900 gallons of water to make a pair of cotton jeans. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says a cotton shirt requires 700 gallons of water, compared to 500 gallons for a pound of chicken and 4,000-18,000 gallons to produce a one-third-pound hamburger. It takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow one almond.    

Agriculture uses around 80% of California’s water. Farmers use 15% of the state’s water to grow a thirsty crop that is mostly exported to China, where it is used to feed cows.  

California grows 90-95% of the country’s Pima cotton, which is convenient, since the state dominates high-end apparel manufacturing. The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporations says Los Angeles ranks #1 nationally in apparel overall and #2 in textile manufacturing.    

Southern California produces 75% of the high-end denim worn worldwide, John Blank, economic adviser to the California Fashion Association, told the Wall Street Journal. The denim trade generates $18 billion of revenue among local fashion manufacturers.

There is no evidence that shoppers for high-end cotton jeans, dress shirts and sheets are cutting back on purchases out of drought concerns but just in case, the industry has begun a campaign to convince people that they don’t need to wash their jeans for up to a decade. Every little bit helps.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

A Once-Flourishing Pima Cotton Industry Withers in an Arid California (by Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times)

Estimate: California Cotton Acreage Drops 24 Percent (Western Farm Press)

Why the California Drought Matters to the Fashion Industry (by Andria Cheng, Wall Street Journal)

California Drought: LA Braces as Cotton Acreage Falls (by Jeff Daniels, CNBC)

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