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New Mexico Cotton Producers Pumped About Pima

LAS CRUCES - Southern New Mexico's lingering drought is prompting cotton growers to pin their hopes for higher prices on Pima, the Cadillac of cotton, reports a New Mexico State University expert. The high-end variety brings top prices because it's bred with long staple or fiber for sheets, specialty clothing markets and household products with ultrasoft textures.

Denise McWilliams, an agronomy specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, checks the condition of a Pima cotton field near Las Cruces. Pima is a good choice in a dry year because it's water conserving and this year it's likely to bring a good price, McWilliams said. (06/18/2003) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

"The Pima cotton market is really blooming for New Mexico this year," said Denise McWilliams, an agronomy specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. The superior quality cotton is named for the Pima Indians who helped to raise it in Arizona test fields in the early 1900s.

Given the length and severity of the drought, Pima is a good choice in a dry year because its water conserving and likely to bring a good price, McWilliams said. Moreover, planting estimates for the variety are down in the competitor states of Arizona and California, she said.

"But the scarcity of water means that weed control and good irrigation management are essential," McWilliams said.

Pima cotton is grown in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. California is by far the leading producer with 203,000 acres harvested last year.

New Mexico has some 7,000 acres of Pima planted this season. Dona Ana County is the state's top Pima producer, with more than 90 percent of the state's high-end cotton production last year, some 6,600 acres.

Southern New Mexico boasts a refined growing environment well suited for long staple cottons, McWilliams said. Plentiful sunshine and cool nights, along with mild winters and low humidity, produce strong and long fibers.

New Mexico's Pima production has been on a roller coaster ride during the past three decades. The state had 21,100 acres of Pima cotton in 1972. Ten years later it dipped to 9,400 acres. But in 1989, Pima soared to 30,400 acres, a modern-day record for New Mexico.

"We hit it at the right time," said John White, Dona Ana County horticultural agent with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "Prices were really good at the time because production was limited and the crop was relatively new to the American cotton belt."

Since that production peak, the crop has tapered off, dipping to 4,100 acres in 2000. New Mexico's producers harvested 7,100 acres last year, yielding about 14,000 bales. A bale of cotton weighs some 500 pounds. Some 7,000 acres of Pima are planted this season.

McWilliams stressed that Pima is a niche cotton crop. The bulk of New Mexico's cotton crop is upland cotton, a shorter-season plant with shorter fibers that can usually grow in all areas of the state. The USDA reported that some 50,000 acres of upland cotton were planted in New Mexico last year.

Producers prefer upland cotton because it yields more bales per acre than higher-value Pimas, is considered easier to grow and has better insect resistance, she said.
According to the National Cotton Council, the total value of New Mexico's cotton industry is $43 million, including farms, gins, warehouses and mills.

The Memphis-based National Cotton Council of America added that 98 percent of the American cotton market is located in just 14 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Texas, which grows about 5 million bales of cotton annually, is the leading cotton-producing state. And while Texas is big, China historically is the largest grower worldwide. The Chinese produced approximately 23 million bales of cotton in 2001. The United States was second, with 20 million bales