Murphy’s Law — Anything that can go wrong will go wrong — might well have been written by a cotton farmer. Consider the things that went wrong for West Texas cotton this year:
- Spring rains delayed planting by as much as a month, forcing many farmers to replant fields that were flooded out by a Memorial Day weekend downpour that dumped as much as a foot of rain on some fields
- By early July, drought had returned with a vengeance.
- Weed populations, encouraged by early moisture and helped along by herbicides leached out of root zones, exploded, forcing farmers to spray more and hire hoe hands.
- Rains started again just as harvest got under way.
- Cotton price dropped to 60 cents.
- Congress decided to cut a slice out of the crop insurance subsidy as part of a budget deal.
That budget fiasco may have been the cruelest cut, says Dan Jackson, manager of the Meadow Farmers Co-op Gin at Meadow, Texas. “It’s especially bad for cotton farmers, since we have nothing else.”
Intervention by House and Senate Agriculture Committees appears to have paved the way for restoring those cuts when an omnibus spending bill is debated later this year. But recent pressure from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), along with efforts from legislators, indicates that the issue may not be as cut and dried as farmers hope.
A FINANCIAL NIGHTMARE
“We are set up to take a hit we don’t need,” says Jackson. “It’s a financial nightmare for cotton. Many growers didn’t get a crop last year, and the price dropped. Some who have been farming since the mid- 1950s are now working for someone else.”
Those who have made it through four years of drought, rising production costs, and a lower price, still face challenges, he says. “Crop insurance has been the only backstop they’ve had.”
He and others were particularly incensed that Congress didn’t consult either ag committee before making the initial budget recommendation and promoting the agreement. “Agriculture is a minority sector,” he says. “We have no voting bloc. We had already been hit hard in the last farm bill.”
He’s particularly concerned for his younger clients. He mentions one in particular, a 20 year-old who is harvesting his first crop this fall. “Farming is all he’s ever wanted to do, but with things as they are, it will be hard. Program crops may offer a bit more, but they depend on crop insurance, too.”
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Jackson grew up on a West Texas farm and remembers some rough times. But he says recent production cost increases, coupled with sharp declines in commodity prices, have created a less certain outcome for farmers, especially those just getting started.
The challenge has become more difficult in the last few years. “Since 2008, input costs — especially seed at $400 a bag — have risen sharply. And cotton is at 60 cents a pound.”
A RIPPLE EFFECT
If the crop insurance guarantee built into the farm bill is not restored, Jackson says, a ripple effect will roll across the High Plains. “Bankers will be reluctant to make loans. It will be hard on infrastructure. We thought we would never get here, and that Congress would not reopen the farm bill.”
Cotton contributes around $12 billion to the High Plains economy, he notes. “Take away crop insurance, and you jeopardize a lot of that.”
He’s not all doom and gloom. He says the 2015 cotton crop, despite setbacks and continuing challenges, looks to be decent. “We had good rains early. We’re still early in harvest [in late October], so we’re not sure yet how yields will turn out. We saw a lot of ‘bowling ball’ cotton in the summer, smaller bolls than we’re used to.” He attributes part of that to a soil salinity issue brought on by a lower water table.
Grades for some of the first cotton ginned were respectable, “a lot of 39 staple, so quality is good. We’ve seen a good bit of leaf. I’m anxious to get into the better cotton and see if we get better numbers. If we get some good sunny days, a lot of the cotton will be bleached out and will look better. We have a lot of dryland cotton — more than last year. A lot of conventional cotton was planted as a way to save money.”
Farmers also have a lot of weeds. “I know a grower who takes a lot of pride in what he does, and never in the 14 years I’ve known him have I seen a weed in his crop,” Jackson says. “But, he had weeds this year. He did everything by the book, and still had weeds.”
To manage tough-to-control and herbicide-resistant weeds, farmers will have to make changes, Jackson says. Deep breaking and rotation are two options. “Going back to yellow herbicides is also important. The problem with rotation is that options are limited. We’re set up to plant cotton, and nothing else looks any better. We probably will see some rotation in self-defense, with split fields,” half in cotton and half in a rotation crop. He recommends that farmers scrutinize the cash flow differences between cotton and rotation crops.
Availability in 2016 of dicamba and 2, 4-D-tolerant cotton varieties, along with the herbicide products designed to work with them, will help in the management of resistant weeds, Jackson says. “Some growers may be skeptical, but these products will offer new tools for dealing with resistant weeds.” He expects the systems to be expensive. “It may be hard to add costly technology, given a 60-cent cotton market, but these products will help kill tough weeds.”
Individual farmers, he says, have to look at the potential return on investment for new technology, as well as other inputs. “A farmer has to be a businessman first,” he says. “A tractor costs $250,000, a stripper another $250,000, and he pays $400 for a bag of seed. Farmers are now doing more with less equipment than ever before.”
Farmers understand their minority status, Jackson says. “We’re looking for someone to stand up for us. We need good farm policy and a good safety net. We want sound policy — not a free ride.”