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Secrets of a Successful Pima Cotton Harvest

An Interview with Cotton Farmer, Cannon Michael

Now that the last of this year’s verified pure PimaCott Cotton has been picked, we caught up with Cannon Michael, a sixth-generation farmer and the president of Bowles Farming Company, to learn a bit more about the preparation, hard work, and the surprising amount of science involved in the harvest.

Cannon Michael of Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos, California

What are the stages of the pima cotton growth and harvest cycle?

The cycle actually starts well before the seeds go in the ground. Throughout the winter, we’re analyzing soil health and fertility and preparing our fields for cotton by adding compost to enrich the soil and planting cover crops to prevent the spread of weeds. Once early spring comes, we’re measuring soil temperatures and moisture levels to determine the ideal time to plant the pima.

And then, if the conditions are right, the plants will germinate and the little seedlings will sprout up within five to six days. After that, it’s really a matter of careful monitoring throughout the spring and summer. We have regular irrigations and cultivations to help open up the soil, and we use everything from soil probes to aerial drones to help us determine if the conditions have changed in a way that requires us to adjust our schedule.

Growing pima cotton is a very hands-on process. It’s a unique business in that it’s a bit like you’re raising a baby. You take this seed from a little tiny plant to all the way to a something that becomes a product that is integral to so many people’s daily lives.

How do you prepare for the harvest?

Even though the harvest itself is fairly straightforward, there’s a lot of work that goes into preparing for it. Generally, we target mid-August to cut off the water and allow the pima plants to dry down and open up.

In addition, we’ve got to get our equipment and our teams prepared. That means getting the machinery functioning and updated, making sure we’re trained on the latest safety protocols, and preparing everyone to work some long days in the safest, most efficient manner.

What is the biggest challenge you face during the pima cotton harvest?

Rain is our biggest concern. Here in California’s San Joaquin Valley, we have a Mediterranean climate with very little rainfall, which is ideal for growing pima cotton. The quality of the pima fibers can be compromised if they’re exposed to too much rain, and we can only harvest it’s dry. This means that a heavy rainfall can really slow down — or entirely derail — the process, so we work quickly within that narrow harvest window to get the crop picked as efficiently as possible.

What makes a harvest successful?

First and foremost, success for us means a safe harvest with no incidents or injuries. Safety is a top priority, and we dedicate significant time to making sure our team is properly trained, from bringing in a third-party for comprehensive instruction on the machinery, to doing mid-season check-ins to ensure everyone is adhering to protocol and staying in the right mindset.

And, of course, if we can get the entire crop harvested before any rain, that’s the best-case scenario.

Is there anything you do during this year's harvest that helps you prepare for next year?

The harvesting machines we use are pretty high tech, and they not only pick the cotton, but they’re actually able to measure and map the output of the pima plants across all our fields using GPS. These yield maps help us learn how our fields are doing by assessing which, if any, areas underperformed. We’re able to get out there to test the soil and figure out if there are issues we can correct. This kind of testing and data helps us make better decisions as we work on producing the best pima cotton in the most sustainable, efficient way.

What's your favorite way to unwind after the harvest is over?

We like to celebrate with a post-harvest barbeque for our team on the farm. We’re very fortunate in that we’ve got a great crew, some of whom have been with us for a long time. They’re the boots on the ground and we want to reward them for all their hard work. The cookout is just a simple way to thank our people and a great opportunity for some fun and relaxation together after a long season.

UPDATE: The harvest is here! Now you can take home pure pima cotton from farms like Cannon’s with Wamsutta sheets and Wamsutta towels.