Cotton Harvest Begins In Coastal Bend Amidst Brushes With Tropical Storms

Cotton harvest in the Lower Coastal Bend area started in earnest during the third week of August. Some of the area’s earliest maturing fields had harvest equipment working as early as August 15. But, as earlier predicted, the Coastal Bend cotton crop is at least two to three weeks later than usual this season.

During the past two weeks, cotton farmers have had their eyes fixed on two things. First has been the stage of crop maturity. That is important for determining when to apply harvest aid chemical treatments to induce leaf drop and accelerate the opening of large green bolls. The second item of focus has been the tropical weather. And for the past ten days the tropics has generated a lot of weather excitement. Tropical storm Erin brought a wide path of heavy rain that produced serious flooding in the San Antonio area and much of the Hill Country to the north and west of that city. That system managed to spread heavy rainfall throughout much of North Texas and across the state-line into Oklahoma and Arkansas. It then continued to spread heavy rains throughout the Mid-West.

Ironically, and yet fortunately for cotton farmers in the Lower Coastal Bend area, although tropical storm Erin was predicted to hit just south of Corpus Christi with 40 to 50 mile winds, the path moved north eastward during its final hours before landfall and produced nothing more than a few widely scattered showers. A common expression among those involved in the region’s cotton industry was, “Our prayers were answered, we dodged the bullet.” But that sigh of relief was short lived as Dean began to intensify into a full-fledged Atlantic hurricane and continued to strengthen into a category five hurricane as it clipped past Jamaica and made its way toward Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

By the evening on Monday, August 20, Dean had developed winds of 150 miles per and forecasters were projecting “landfall” for this powerful storm along the mid-coast of mainland Mexico, between cities of Tampico and Veracruz. That was far south of the earlier predicted possible strike-zone that had a large portion of South Texas in the storm’s sites. But words of caution continued to warn of the possibilities of a change in direction once the storm entered the Gulf of Mexico and had the opportunity to reorganize over the warmer waters of the Gulf.

All of this was good news for South Texas cotton farmers that had just completed dropping leaves on thousands of acres of cotton. That was the same cotton crop that had endured over a month of drenching rains during the wettest July on record. Now, with much of the crop without leaves to act as an umbrella for open bolls of cotton, the crop was even more susceptible to the effects of high winds and driving rains.

On that Monday, August 20, as Dean rapidly moved toward the Yucatan, I had the responsibility to help host a group of eighteen cotton farmers and agricultural researchers from Venezuela. They were touring the various cotton production areas of Texas before making their way to Lubbock for the World Cotton Research Conference.

Getting to know agricultural producers from different parts of the world is always insightful. Although conditions, both climatic and political, can differ greatly between the U.S. and those in developed foreign countries, farmers always have similar areas of concern. Several come to light early on during these visits. First is how to maintain profitability when the cost of production increases faster than commodity prices rise. Next, is the struggle to deal with increasing governmental policies and regulations that limit the farmers’ ability to make operational and management changes that could improve their bottom line.

Currently, the Venezuelan farmers are dealing with land prices that have tripled in the past decade, as well as inflationary pressure on production inputs and higher interest rates for production loans. They also have strict export restrictions on their beef at a time when global demand is strong for the product. Any of these problems sound familiar back home.

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