David Dunlow has grown cotton his entire career but for the first time in 2016 he can began to question if he was doing the right thing.
Dunlow, who farms with his wife Debra and son William in North Carolina’s Northampton and Halifax Counties, began farming with his father and mother after graduating high school in 1978. In 1985, he became a partner in the operation and in 1992, upon the death of his father, he began running the farm on his own. Cotton has always been their top crop, but Dunlow says provisions in the 2014 farm bill that kept cotton out of the covered commodity program made 2015 and 2016 both very challenging years for producing cotton.
“We were shut out of the farm bill. Without that support, without that safety net, the cotton farmer is very vulnerable,” Dunlow says. “I attribute my uncertainty about growing cotton in 2015 and 2016 mostly to that. But the fact that we had some holes in crop insurance where the quality portion of cotton wasn’t insured properly really cost North Carolina cotton farmers a lot in 2015 and 2016.”
In 2015, much of the North Carolina cotton crop was damaged by heavy rains at harvest. Hurricane Matthew also damaged much of the crop in 2016. In both years, many farmers suffered greater quality losses rather than yield losses.
Dunlow says the situation in 2015 and 2016 demonstrate that the quality loss provisions of federal crop insurance proved inadequate for many producers in North Carolina and other Southeast cotton states.
The good news, Dunlow says, is USDA’s Risk Management Agency is working to change provisions to crop insurance beginning in 2018 that will protect farmers who suffer quality losses but not necessarily yield loss. Dunlow says the National Cotton Council, Southern Cotton Growers, the North Carolina Cotton Producers Association and other organizations worked diligently with RMA to implement the changes that will improve the quality provisions of crop insurance.
Dunlow is chairman and past president of Southern Cotton Growers and serves on the board of the National Cotton Council. He says changes to the quality provisions of crop insurance and including “seed cotton” as a covered commodity in the 2018 farm bill are the most pressing policy issues impacting cotton farmers. He says the term “seed cotton” or “cottonseed” is key for including cotton as a covered commodity.
“We (cotton farmers) are unique because we raise two different commodities but one product. We sell our seed and we sell our lint. Most of the seed we produce in North Carolina goes to feed dairy cows in states north of us. A lot of the seed is also used for oil,” Dunlow says.
Dunlow says cotton should be a covered commodity under Title 1 of the farm bill. He says industry organizations are all on the same page of including “seed cotton” as a covered commodity in the next farm bill. Cotton is the only program crop that doesn't have any long-term price or revenue protection in the farm bill and that needs to be corrected in the next farm bill.
Dunlow says by including cotton in Title 1, cotton farmers will have access to risk management tools that provide protection during prolonged periods of depressed market conditions. He is optimistic changes will be made and cotton will be a covered commodity in the next farm bill.
“I am passionate about cotton. I make my living with cotton. We just want to be treated like other commodities. We want to be in the Title 1 portion of the farm bill. My sense, after going to Washington, D.C., is they hear us. Congress supports us. We are just trying to find a way to get back in the farm bill,” he says.