California's Velcro Crop under Challenge (1993)
by Ken Umbach
California's important Velcro crop, vital to the clothing, footwear, and
sporting goods industries, has been severely stressed by drought, disease,
VelcroŽ, an engineered crop, consists of two distinct strains: hooks and
loops. As any user of Velcro knows, a strip of hooks clings to a strip of
loops as the springy hook-shaped fibers latch through tiny but firm loops.
Gentle pressure allows the hook strip to be pulled from the loop strip. The
user may repeat the process time and again, making this product a convenient,
versatile replacement for zippers, buttons, snaps, laces, and other forms of
fastener in wide-ranging applications.
California's climate and soil conditions make the state an ideal venue for
and successful producer of both strains of Velcro. For obvious reasons, of
course, the hook strain must be grown in fields separated from those with the
loop strain. This is often accommodated by widely spacing separate fields of
the two strains among large expanses of cotton, alfalfa, or other crops.
For competitive and industrial confidentiality reasons, of course, the crop
is not widely highlighted in crop reports. A little Velcro goes a long way,
as both strains are densely packed on their respective mature plants, and the
entire crop is dwarfed by other field crops, most notably cotton.
Nonetheless, the crop is of high value and can be a substantial profit
builder for the successful grower.
Three issues have conspired to threaten and diminish the crop in California's
southern San Joaquin Valley, especially drought-affected Kern County.
- Dry and windy conditions have caused hook and loop spores to commingle even
across widely spaced fields, resulting in tangled Velcro bolls combining both
strains and unprocessable by any known means.
- Invasions of disease and pests have damaged the crop. Specifically (1) the
flaccidity virus has resulted in weakened hooks, unable to hold adequately or
even to snap through the corresponding loops, and (2) the pest millipedus
minisculus, or 'tiny thousand-footed creature', has multiplied in the Velcro
fields, frequently becoming so ensnared in the developing loops as to make
the crop unharvestable.
Crop management for Velcro is made especially difficult by the need to outfit
field workers head-to-toe in TeflonŽ jumpsuits. (The Teflon crop is another
issue, to be tackled in a future report in this series.) Absent such protection,
field workers are in danger of becoming enmeshed in the Velcro bolls while
working the fields. Clothing and even body hair may become entangled with
the hooks or loops, requiring difficult extraction procedures. The Teflon
jumpsuits in turn require personal cooling equipment and expensive
maintenance. When available, it is preferable to hire a crew composed
entirely of professional body builders, who are both strong and hairless
from head to toe.
- Drought has both limited water for the westside Velcro fields and exacerbated
All in all, cultivation is a demanding and costly process,
making profit margins unusually vulnerable to price swings and crop
As the chart and table below so starkly show, the combined assaults on the
Velcro crop have had marked effects.
In view of the singular nature of this specialized crop and its high
contribution, when successful, to the financial well-being of the farmers who
have the tenacity to grow it:
The respective agricultural commissioners and extension personnel should
emphasize proper spacing requirements for fields of the hook and loop
strains. Research, training, and inspection are all necessary.
Responsible officials should redouble efforts to eradicate flaccidity virus
and millipedus minisculus.
Water officials should accommodate the special needs of this high value crop
in determining allocations, especially in years of water shortage.
By these means, it should be possible to restore the vigor, productivity, and
profitability of this specialized but significant crop.
Postscript (December 1996). The return of relatively normal rainfall patterns, together with sunspot conditions that have decimated flaccidity virus and millipedus minisculus, have contributed to a strengthened Velcro crop, but no one knows what the future might bring. Consider investing in zippers and buttons.