Even for dryland crop: RGV cotton farmers optimistic for once

This could be the year that South Texas cotton farmers make money! Last summer many farmers didn't even harvest their fields because of lack of yields; and those who did harvest were faced with depressed prices. It's no wonder that many producers went into bankruptcy.

“Last year was a disaster,” admits cotton farmer Lance Swanberg, “but this year it's looking good.”

He, along with his brother Marshall plant dryland cotton under the name Swanco Farms,, all under conservation tillage, in Willacy County in the Rio Grande Valley.

Why this unusual optimism? “It's simply because we've had water,” says Swanberg. There's been enough rain in South Texas to penetrate deep down into the soil. “It should sustain the crop for a long time.”

This will also help cotton producers who irrigate since farmers have pretty much given up hope of receiving the water from Mexico they say is due them.

To keep boll weevil pressure low, the Swanbergs' cotton was planted within a three-week time period that ended April 1. Conditions during that time were almost perfect for planting, the lucky break that farmers needed.

“All of our cotton is the smooth-leaf variety,” says Swanberg. This variety is a deterrent to white flies, although white flies are less of a problem in Willacy County than in other places.

“Seed is a big expense.” Although Swanberg uses all certified seed, he noted that many producers are saving money by retaining their own seeds after harvest. The seeds are then sent to a processing plant for delinting and put into cold storage until the next planting season.

He, too, is considering doing this in the future. “We look for any way we can to save money.”

It's no wonder. The cotton market has been anything but healthy in the last few years. When growers need to get about 72 cents per pound of cotton lint to break even, prices have been stranded at about 40 cents per pound for many years. “We'd like to see it at 85 cents,” says Swanberg.

“Last year, insurance barely covered half the expenses,” says Marshall Swanberg, the other half of Swanco. Cotton is an expensive crop to grow.

“We have to get a bale and a half per acre plus a good market price in order to make a profit.”

Marshall Swanberg also feels that the new farm bill should provide some much needed backup for farmers. “There's no way we could be in farming without government assistance,” he stressed.

The Swanbergs also produce grain, which, along with cotton occupy the most acreage on their farms, but their most profitable crop is sugar cane. They are also cattle ranchers and have been in the business of farming and ranching for over 20 years.

John Norman, cotton entomologist at Texas A&M Extension in Weslaco, is as optimistic as the farmers about this year's crop. “Right now it's not quite at 60 cents a pound, but if it continues moving along the way it has, we'll be in good shape.”

He also notes that the cotton coming up is looking good.

Norman feels that farmers in the Valley pretty much adhered to the three-week window for planting. “And very few of them had to replant.”

He estimates about 10,000 more acres of cotton will be planted in South Texas this year than last.

Norman, though, does warn the farmers about boll weevils, which appear to be arriving in full force.

Traps show 12 times the number of boll weevils over last year, which was too dry a year to see large numbers. This is the down side to the good news that there is plenty of moisture.

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