Positive outlook for cotton

Published 10:36 am Wednesday, August 24, 2011


SOUTHAMPTON—Southampton County’s Virginia Cooperative Extension agent Chris Drake is calling for a potentially good cotton crop this season.

“(It could be) an average crop and (there’s) the potential for one well above,” Drake said.

Weather could be a factor.

“Anything can happen, such as a hurricane,” he said.

Meanwhile, the price per pound remains “pretty elevated.”

“Historically, it’s better than before,” Drake noted. “As of Aug. 18, cotton futures were at $1.04 per pound. In the early part of 2011, the price was $2, but it’s not likely to get back to that level.”

Investor speculation, high demand from China and the dwindling supply in 2010 were among the factors Drake cited for that brief price hike. As of this past Monday, the price remained around $1.

Overall, “farmers should have a decent year,” he said. “But the input cost is a lot higher, especially where fertilizer, seed and fuel are concerned. Some fertilizers cost as much as $600 a ton.”

Going back to the weather, Drake said this past weekend’s rainfall was “very spotty.” Some places such as Sebrell and Courtland got 1 inch to 1½ inches, but others like Monroe and Sunbeam got about ½ inch to 1 inch.

While cotton does not require as much moisture as corn, there’s “mild to moderate drought in some areas,” he said. “Cotton is nearing maturity in many places and past the point where rainfall will benefit it.”

Ideal weather would include “less humidity and cooler nighttime temperatures,” Drake said. “More fall-like weather. Cotton fluffs out better.”

The Virginia Farm Bureau recently issued a mixed report about upcoming crop harvests. In short, while yields are expected to be up statewide, the increased expenses will diminish profits.

This is especially significant for cotton farmers, for example, who can begin harvesting their fields in a month, maybe a bit less.

Crop production in the state is anticipated to be up 86 percent from last year, according to the report from the Virginia Farm Bureau. Further, cotton acreage is up 39 percent from 2010, at 114,000 acres.

In Southampton County, cotton is planted on nearly 47 percent of the 100,000 tillable acres, Drake said.

Capron farmer M.L. Everett Jr., chairman of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Cotton Advisory Committee, and his son, Lewis, devoted 1,200 acres out of 1,500 to cotton. The rest went for soybeans, peanuts, corn, pumpkins and cattle.

Diversification is important to him, M.L. Everett said.

“Weather-wise, I think it’s a good cotton crop out there,” he said.

But some farmers who planted one-third of their acreage in mid-April could be hurt.

“You never know from year to year whether to plant early or late,” said Everett. “Early planting seemed to suffer due to heat stress. The plants have a built-in mechanism, but later planted cotton has fared better.”

But he’s tempered his overall optimism with concerns of operating costs eating into profits.

“Our expenses just continue to rise,” Everett said. “We noticed machine parts for cotton pickers had gone up 10 to 15 percent above last year’s prices. It seems like some are holding steady, but no decreases. A real challenge is to make your income exceed your expenses.”

“All small businesses know where I’m coming from,” he continued. “Everyone’s expenses have gone up. It trickles right on up the ladder.”

Gary Cross, who’s been farming in the Blackcreek area for 15 years, said raising chickens has long given way to cotton, of which 75 percent of his 1,000 acres is dedicated. Peanuts and soybeans make up the rest.

“I’m more fortunate than last year,” Cross said.

For this year, he anticipates “a good average crop.”

“I would hope for all of it, but if I could get 85 percent, I would be happy,” Cross said.

The past weekend’s rain was a mere drizzle. More would obviously have been ideal, “but it’s getting too late to be very productive,” he said.

Cross agrees high yields will be offset by expenses.

“With higher input costs, we need a $1 or higher just to come out ahead,” he said. “We pray for a good crop and we pray for good prices.”

“It would be nice for the public to realize what we put on the line each and every year to grow food and fiber and to make a decent living,” Cross added. “It’s important that people understand how many lives agriculture touches.”