Cotton is back and Mississippi farmers are hoping to cash in.
Several years of declining global prices, which saw farmers across the country selling their cotton pickers and converting former cotton fields to grain crops, have created a shortage. Now the demand for cotton has the price floating around double the average and farmers are hustling to increase their cotton acreage before the price comes back down.
“I can tell you what caused it to go up: I didn”t plant any last year,” joked Clay County farmer Randy Simmons.
Simmons didn”t plant any cotton last year for the first time in 20 years because an exceptionally rainy autumn in 2009 saturated his fields, forcing him to go with soybeans instead. But he wasn”t the only farmer to miss the bounce. Everyone did.
Dr. John Michael Riley, an expert in agricultural economics at Mississippi State University, said the worldwide shortage in cotton didn”t become evident until everyone had their 2010 crops in the ground. Because China, India and the United States, the top three producers of cotton, all sit in the northern hemisphere, they all share the same planting and harvest seasons.
Now Simmons and the rest of Mississippi farmers, who produce 8-10 percent of the country”s cotton yield, are hoping prices stay strong for the next several years as the state increases its cotton acreage from 420,000 acres in 2010 to 530,000. But just as there”s no way to know what the weather will do to crops this year, there”s no way to know how long cotton will be in demand.
Riley says the price of cotton should remain strong through the 2011 season and possibly the next several years while the worldwide supply is replenished. Still, many local farmers may choose to sit out the cotton boom due to the cost of business.
“The equipment for cotton is expensive. When we shifted away from cotton we saw people selling their combines. How willing are folks to reinvest in that equipment? In their minds, if this is a one or two year deal, they”re probably not going to devote the money to cotton,” he said.
Simmons, who is one of a small handful of cotton farmers with fields in Clay County, has done well enough to hold on to all of his equipment. He didn”t take a big loss last year despite missing his usual 500 acres of cotton because the price of soybeans has remained strong the last couple years.
In a week or so he”ll spray the field where he planted soybeans last year with Roundup weed killer, level the raised rows and plant cotton seeds an inch deep in the soil.
If all goes well, he”ll harvest approximately 1,000 pounds of cotton per acre in October. With prices currently around $1.40 per pound — possibly higher by harvest time — he”ll gross $1,400 per acre. But factoring in $4 per gallon diesel fuel, fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, three employees, equipment maintenance and other related costs, Simmons will spend approximately $500 per acre.
And that”s if all goes well.
Dr. Darrin Dodds, a cotton specialist at MSU, says cotton is the most expensive crop to grow. And unlike the state”s top agricultural commodities — poultry and forrestry — it”s susceptible to the elements.
“Tell me what the weather is going to do and I”ll tell you what to plant. We just don”t know that,” said Dodds.
No forecaster, he says, can look far enough into the future to ease farmers” anxieties. If the weather is too wet, the state could lose half of its cotton crop as it did in 2009. Mississippi produced a robust cotton crop in 2010 despite an unusually hot and dry summer, but Dodds chalks that up to a strong start in April and May with the perfect amount of rain.
Generally, he says, cotton thrives in hot, dry weather as long as the heat goes down with the sun.
“Once it hits 100 degrees during the day it”s certainly not doing us any favors. But it”s the nighttime temperatures that hurt cotton,” he said. “If it”s working all night to cool itself, it”s just like us. If you sweat all day long and all night long, eventually you”re going to break down. Whereas, if you sweat all day then go home and take a shower and rest all night, you can come back the next day and do it again. Cotton is the same way.”
If nighttime temperatures stay in the 80s, Dodds said cotton plants will become stressed and won”t grow properly, yielding less fiber.
Then there”s the bugs and weeds to contend with.
Mississippi farmers have battled tarnished plant bugs for years, but Roundup-resistant weeds are the next big headache. Dodds said multiple species exist all around the hills of northeast Mississippi in the Delta, where the majority of Mississippi cotton is grown, along the coast, in west Alabama and above us in west Tennessee.
“In the next several years I suspect we”ll see it show up in the hills,” said Dodds.
Seeds from the crop-choking weeds, he said, travel in numerous ways and travel fast. The pollen can blow thousands of feet in the wind. Or seeds can hide in used farming equipment bought from infected counties in Arkansas and spread to Mississippi fields if not properly cleaned.
“If a farmer gets plant bugs or resistant weeds, those will get into that (cotton) profit,” said Dodds.
But there”s still money to be made for those farmers who forge ahead. If all goes well, Dodds says that money will find its way into the local economy.
“It trickles further than folks realize. If a guy has a good year he might go out and buy a new pickup truck and it trickles to the local car dealer. Or if they do improvements on their house. It all trickles down and very far out,” he said.
Riley warns not to expect cotton to pull the state out of its current financial crisis, but it will help while it”s here.
“Some would say cotton is here to stay. I”m a bit more pessimistic because the fundamentals for corn and soybeans outweigh the demand for fiber. After we replenish the stock, we should see acres (devoted to cotton) kind of drift back nationally,” he said. “But in Mississippi, people have an affinity for cotton.”
“That”s anybody”s guess,” said Simmons regarding the staying power of cotton. “As long as the Chinese are paying what they”re paying for it, I guess it will stay here. But nobody knows.”
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.
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