Keith Kresta stands in front of a sagging, brown-bottomed, stinking cotton module and asks Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway to secure help for South Texas farmers and ranchers who’ve been devastated by Hurricane Harvey.
“I believe in a fiscally conservative government,” Kresta says, “but we need help from the federal government. We’ve had it tough the last two years, and this cotton crop was going to put us back on track.” His crop was pushing three bales per acre — now, even cotton he harvested before the storm hit is badly damaged, possibly not salvageable. As the tour rode by rotting modules, the stench was powerful, reminiscent of cattle feedyards.
“I saved most of my cows,” Kresta says, “but lost all my hay. I was fortunate to get some of the hay that folks from across the country donated. Farmers are a resilient lot, but we do need a safety net.”
“That’s the farmer spirit,” Perdue says of the help from other farmers. “Their generosity has been overwhelming. They have done a good job of helping others.”
F.D. Gavranovic and his son, Daniel, farm just over a rise from Kresta. They showed the tour group a field of potentially three bale cotton that had been completely covered by floodwaters. Nothing remained but brown — leaves, stems, bolls. Perdue held a ruined cotton boll in his hand, a brittle piece of dead plant material that bore no resemblance to cotton.
CRACKS IN SAFETY NET
The next farm bill needs to do a better job of sealing the cracks in the current crop insurance programs, Perdue says. “The 2014 bill went a long way toward providing a safety net, but we’ve seen some cracks.”
Daniel Gavranovic says they had harvested about half of their 4,000 acres of cotton when the hurricane hit. “Some of the cotton already in modules was destroyed.” Another 300 acre field was flooded. “We got from 25 inches to 30 inches of rain from the storm, and a lot of the cotton that wasn’t flooded won’t yield as well, and the quality will be off.”
F.D. said he and Daniel farm as FDG Farms in Wharton and Matagorda counties. “We had cotton that could have made three bales,” he said. But Daniel says, “We didn’t lose our homes — and a lot of folks did.”
Chairman Conaway raised the question of who owns and insures a cotton module after it has been delivered to the gin, or remains in the field but has been reported to the gin. “We’re trying to determine that,” Kresta said. He used the STAX program this year and also bought individual unit insurance instead of enterprise unit. “That will help a lot,” he says.
Working with bankers, Conaway says, will be a critical element as farmers and ranchers evaluate losses and begin planning for next year. “It’s all about the banker. They are requiring crop insurance, but maybe we need to suggest that they recommend the best insurance coverage.”
Kresta also mentioned the need to get cotton back into the farm program as a covered commodity, a goal Conaway has championed for months.
INSURANCE NOT ENOUGH
Kresta and the Gavranovics say their insurance won’t come close to covering their losses. It won’t pay based on the crop they had in the field, but rather on historical averages.
Jimmy Roppolo, manager of Farmers Cooperative at El Campo, responded to a question from Conaway about gin expectations following Hurricane Harvey. “Our record is 157,000 bales, but we only ginned 60,000 last year. We had 200,000 in the field this year, but we will be lucky to gin 150,000 now.”
A lot of cotton that had been harvested and was on the gin yard or still in the field was destroyed or suffered water damage. Conaway asked if any could be saved. “We don’t know,” Roppolo says. “We will test one field to see if we can salvage some.” He says they can test moisture content of bales before they go into the gin. “If we detect too much moisture before we get it in, we leave it out, and we save a lot of time. We want to be as efficient as we can.”
Miller said South Texas agriculture losses will be high, and that early loss estimates just in cotton will be low “And we will be some time yet determining cattle losses — we’re still assessing cattle numbers.”