California’s first attempts at growing cotton sprouted in 1862, but cotton didn’t become a viable commercial crop in the state until 1919, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture, seeking new production areas to stem production losses in the South due to the boll weevil, identified the San Joaquin Valley as an ideal location.
Nearly a decade later, cotton farmers in California’s Kern County joined together into a cooperative in an effort to negotiate fair prices.
The homegrown group began as the San Joaquin Cotton Growers in Delano in 1927 out of a local farmer’s frustration over the middlemen in the cotton industry.
In 1926, Capt. Frank E. Green had a lunch meeting in a Delano hotel, where he pitched the idea of a growers’ cooperative to his peers. The grape and cotton producer had been mulling the idea since 1922, when the Capper-Volstead Act passed, allowing farmers to form cooperative groups without violating anti-trust laws.
Before Capper-Volstead, growers had little power to negotiate cotton deals, nor could they protect themselves from unscrupulous arrangements such as excessive ginning charges, unfair prices or unethical sampling and grading. If a grower objected to a firm’s offerings or angered cotton merchants, he risked being cut off from financing. Without financing, he was likely out of farming.
As other California cooperatives seemed to be thriving—including Sunkist in citrus, Blue Diamond for almonds, Sun-Maid for raisins and Diamond for walnuts—the farmers in attendance liked Green’s proposal to form an organization that would try to guarantee the cotton grower’s product was sold right and in return would receive a fair and honest price. The group soon started recruiting growers and acreage for the association.
By February 1927, the group’s support base had swelled to 25,000 acres. On Feb. 23, 1927, the forerunner of Calcot held its first valley-wide meeting of 151 growers at the Delano Theatre.
The cooperative moved business operations from the smaller town of Delano to the larger Bakersfield in 1931. As Kern County was the state’s largest cotton production area, cotton buyers frequented hotels and other establishments in Bakersfield. (Plus, always conscious of cost efficiency, the association stood to save $2,500 a year if it moved to the private grounds of a cotton compress company in Bakersfield.)
The grower-owned association changed its name after the move to California Cotton Cooperative Association. That lengthy name was shortened to Calcot, Limited in 1956. (“Limited” is a legal designation referring to limitations of financial liability on the part of the association to its individual members.)
The organization expanded in 1955 into Arizona, along the way adding additional warehousing in Fresno and Hanford, California, Glendale, Arizona, and California’s Imperial Valley. The Imperial and Fresno facilities were closed in the 1990s, due to shrinking volume as cotton competed with other crops. But Calcot was still expanding, having added growers in the late ’90s from California’s Sacramento Valley, as well as growers in South Texas in 2005. In 2006, Far West Texas and New Mexico members came on board with the acquisition of SWIG, another cotton marketing cooperative. Members in Oklahoma and Kansas have since further enlarged the reach of the cooperative and expanded the cotton types available to mill buyers.