How Cotton is Produced – In early spring seeds are planted one to three inches deep, by mechanical planters, in seedbeds. Plants are irrigated, fertilized and weeded, as needed, during the 25 week growing cycle. The first true leaves appear after two to four weeks with the bud, also known as a “square,” appearing about five to seven weeks after planting. The white blossoms become pollinated, turn light pink and then wither at about nine weeks, letting the cotton boll develop, producing the fibers and seeds that are harvested. The cotton bolls open naturally over time and a defoliant chemical is applied by ground or air to ensure top quality. This helps the leaves dry and fall off and any remaining closed bolls to open.
A mechanical cotton harvester moves through the field picking the cotton, which is then packed into truckload sized “modules” and taken to the gin. The gin separates the cotton fibers from the seeds. Cleaning equipment removes twigs and other debris. The fiber, now called lint, is packed into 500-pound bales and then transported to textile mills. The cotton is carded or combed, making all of the fibers run parallel, and then spun into thread. Some whole cotton seed is fed to cattle. Some seed is further processed. The fine “linter” fibers are removed and the seed is pressed and cooked, producing cottonseed oil and meal.
Uses – Like lumber, cotton comes in many varieties and qualities, each suitable for different purposes. The long lint fibers are used for many things, most of which begin with a thread, yarn or cotton fabric. Clothing and bedding items are common products. The smaller cotton fibers, known as linters, are removed from the seed and are used as stuffing for furniture and components of linoleum, plastics and insulation. Cotton seed oil is used in foods and cosmetics. Cotton seed hulls are eaten by cattle.
History – The oldest cotton fibers and boll fragments, dated from around 5,000 B.C., were discovered in Mexico. In 5 B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus reported of a plant that “bore fleece.” Cotton has been worn in India and Egypt for over 5,000 years. Cotton was grown by Native Americans as early as 1500. In England in the 1700’s, it was against the law to import or manufacture fabric made of cotton since it was a threat to the sheep and wool industry. American colonists were able to grow lots of cotton, but processing was difficult. It was not until the 1700’s that the cotton industry flourished in the United States. It was then that Samuel Slater, an Englishman, built the first American cotton mill. These mills converted cotton fibers into yarn and cloth. In 1793, Eli Whitney developed the cotton gin, which mechanically separates the seed from the lint fiber. Whitney named his machine a “gin,” short for the word “engine.” Technology has improved over the past centuries making cotton growth and production much more efficient.
Varieties – There are five main cottons varieties grown throughout the world–Egyptian, American Pima, Sea Island, Asiatic and Upland. The most prominent types of cotton grown in California are Upland, whose fiber lengths are 13/16 inches to 11/4 inches in length, and American Pima, whose fiber lengths are 15/16 inches to 11/2 inches. Seventeen states in the nation produce cotton with over 14 million acres of cotton planted annually.
Commodity Value – Cotton is a leading cash crop nationally, ranking just behind corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. In California, cotton ranks 14th in leading agricultural commodities. In 2007, California’s crop value was over $599 million. Additionally, the 2007 value of cottonseed was nearly $121 million.
Top Producing Counties – The majority of cotton is produced in the cotton belt of the United States, ranging along the southern part of the nation from California to Florida and Virginia. In 2007, cotton was produced in 11 California counties from as far north as Glenn County and as far south as Imperial County. Major production areas are Fresno, Kings, Kern and Merced counties.