PCG EMAIL SERVICES: CALLER.COM - Bumper or bust: In the Texas cotton trade, it takes money to make money
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CALLER.COM - Bumper or bust: In the Texas cotton trade, it takes money to make money
Texas produces roughly 25 percent of the nation's entire cotton crop. This year is no exception. But how will yields look after a year of drought?
By Chris Ramirez
Corpus Christi Caller Times
Updated 8:15 a.m. CT Aug. 30, 2018
ODEM, Texas — Your typical clock says there are roughly 13 hours of sunlight each day during the summer.
Jon Whatley has done the math. He's going to need every minute to finish his work.
It's hot and muggy as Whatley, a fourth-generation San Patricio County farmer, climbs into the cab of his two-seat cotton picker. An American flag can be seen at the top of the machine, flapping frantically in the stiff west wind.
The last few hundred acres of unpicked cotton lay in front of him just off County Road 1839.
The mosquitoes are biting, though maybe not as bad as they were a few weeks ago. Whatley can't let that stand in his way.
It's harvest season in cotton country.
"We've already done about 4,000 (acres). This is the last bunch," he says, a toothy grin poking out from the shade of his ball cap. "We'll be here till 10 or so tonight. Until we get it done."
Breaking even at harvest
Football players have their Super Bowl, baseball players their World Series.
But for those who make a living off the holy trinity of South Texas' agriculture industry — cotton, grain sorghum and corn — this is their Super Bowl, their World Series, their Final Four.
Only this year, the bonanza isn't looking as good as it did last year. Far from it.
Mother Nature hasn't cooperated with farmers.
Rain is a welcomed sight in this often-dry region of the Lone Star state, usually. This year, it has been a mixed bag.
Some areas got too much rain. Others either didn't get enough or it came too early.
"(Cotton) was good enough to be a harvestable crop. It's good, but in some cases, it covered only the harvest cost," said Bobby Nedbalek, who farms near Sinton. "This year, we're making just over the minimum to pay for the harvest."
Texas is king in the cotton trade; each year, it produces roughly 25 percent of the nation's entire cotton crop, with more than 6 million acres — roughly the size of the state of New Hampshire.
While Amarillo, Lubbock and the Permian Basin are by far the industry's top production corners, the Coastal Bend and its farmers play no small role in Texas' cotton dominance.
Coastal Bend farmers planted roughly 360,000 acres of cotton this year, a 10-percent uptick from the volume they put in the ground in 2017.
And last year, despite Hurricane Harvey, was a bumper crop, yielding 9.5 million bales statewide and 892,000 bales in the Coastal Bend.
This year the crop is anything but bountiful.
Hot, dry weather conditions that began in May, combined with heavy-but-sporadic summer rains, appear to have stressed the Coastal Bend's cotton haul this year.
The pain is different depending where your farm is located.
In Kleberg County, bolls poked out from the ground several weeks earlier than normal. Some were feeble and grew too short for cotton picker machines to grab them during harvest.
Rain was a mixed bag
Rain would have been most beneficial in Jim Wells County had it fallen in late April or early May. That's when most crops are still growing and in a more productive stage.
Or at least, that's the assessment of Rogelio Mercado, that county's agriculture extension agent.
Rainfall this year came way too late for corn and grain sorghum, he said. Cotton farmers benefited some, but the yields were already negatively affected because of the drought conditions.
There's hope. But there's reality, too.
"The jury is still out on how the rains will impact our cotton harvest in the long run in terms of yield. But one thing is for certain — if we had not received any rain, cotton yields would have been very poor," Mercado said. "Drought conditions had already cut that potential to at least half in most fields. The rains may have saved the fields from losing even more."
An outlook published in February by the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted world cotton production would drop 3.6 percent in the 2018-19 season to 117 million bales.
That's partly because producers in India, the world's top cotton producer, are battling bollworm infestations that will reduce the volume of acres they will plant.
The same report projected cotton production in the United States would fall to 19.5 million bales.
Still, Texas farmers say they're undeterred.
Each year, cotton is the leading cash crop in the state, regularly generating $2.2 billion in crop value, though its broader economic footprint has been estimated to be as high as $24 billion annually.
This year, how much of a cash crop it will be remains in question.
Cost of doing business
Producers, particularly those in Nueces County, where roughly 100,000 acres were planted this year, began defoliating some of their crops in early August.
That's because in July, within a week of those showers, cotton bolls began to crack open, perhaps a bit ahead of schedule.
"The last three years have been really good, but we don't know if our luck will hold out this year," said Jason Ott, the Nueces County extension agent.
Other pressures are farmers' profits.
Some cotton seed, for example, has been engineered to make bolls more resistant to insects.
On its face, that may sound good. But on the bottom line, it's costly.
A 50-pound bag of cotton seed cost roughly $22 when Whatley began farming in 1993.
In February, it traded for $407.
Expenses can add up with roughly 5,000 acres to plant — quickly.
"With rising costs of inputs ... we need a bumper crop just to make money," Whatley said. "It could have been worse, way worse. We just have to be thankful for what we did get."
Chris Ramirez (@Caller_ChrisRam) | Twitter
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