“When we started farming here, it was so salty the soils would not drain,” Cameron says. “We used to keep a tractor and chains ready to pull out stuck equipment. One year, a disk got stuck in the fall and the soil was so saturated it was June before we could get close enough to it to pull it out.”

Now, that same ground produces three-bale Acala and Pima cotton and more than 70 tons per acre of processing tomatoes.

Cotton was Cameron’s moneymaker when he started farming there.

“Cotton has bought and paid for a lot of farms on the West Side of the valley over the years,” he says. “Without cotton, we wouldn’t be here farming what we do today.”

But the cotton industry has paid a hefty sacrifice — it almost disappeared as prices faltered and alternative crops flourished economically. Acreage was well over 1 million acres in many years, but when acres fell below 200,000 in 2008, there were fears the crop could be headed for extinction in the San Joaquin Valley after more than 75 years.

Plantings rebounded to a little less than 500,000 acres in 2011. Unfortunately, acreage likely will not exceed that in the future because permanent orchards/vineyards and high value crops like vegetables have taken much of the ground once in cotton.

Still, Cameron believes cotton has a future in the valley, but its fortunes seem to be tied to what established SJV cotton in the world market in the first place: quality.

SJV Acala has long been considered the finest cotton fiber grown in the U.S., but as other areas of the U.S. and the world have improved fiber properties, the market has shrunk for SJV Acala and the premiums it commanded.

However, SJV cotton has returned to the top of the fiber quality roster, largely due to the introduction of Pima into the valley in the 1990s, when SJV growers discovered they could grow just as much Pima as Acala in many areas and get far more money per pound.

Pima is now the predominant variety in the valley, and “has kept cotton in California,” Cameron says. “When upland prices went so far down, premium Pima prices kept us in cotton.” This year, Cameron is chairman of Supima, the grower supported marketing and promoting organization for American Pima cotton.

Pima had been grown in Arizona for decades before it came into the valley, and didn’t yield as well as upland varieties — generally about 60 percent of what desert growers could produce from upland cotton.

Cameron recalls that his peers in the desert sarcastically wished California cotton growers “good luck” growing Pima. But, Pima did much better in California.

The Extra Long Staple (ELS) cotton does well on heavy ground, of which there is plenty in the valley. Cameron likes Pima because he says it can tolerate water stress better than Acala.

“You can hold back water more with Pima and set more bolls that with Acala. Once Acala blooms out the top, it will not recover. Pima will set more bolls with stress — it’s more forgiving than Acala.”

Although Pima has been a Godsend for many cotton growing areas of the valley, it isn’t suited everywhere. “We have lighter ground where Pima will not do well, so we still need Acala for the valley,” Cameron says.

Acala has actually benefitted from Pima, which is roller-ginned versus saw-ginned. Growers, marketers and ginners have discovered that certain roller-ginned Acala varieties can demand a nice 10 to 12 cents per pound premium from textile mills, which utilize it for its stronger, longer fiber. Saw-ginned SJV Acala still has demand in the world market as well.