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Continued Drought, Depressed Prices Among Concerns for 1999

By Holly Hunter

Since early January, cotton producers have been planning for the unpredictable events their industry could encounter in 1999. Scarce moisture, depressed prices and other economic stresses are some of the concerns producers are acknowledging as they reassess their planting and acreage intentions.

According to the National Cotton Council’s 16th Annual Early Season Planting Intentions Survey, U.S. cotton producers intend to plant 13.5 million acres of cotton this spring, up 0.8 percent from 1998. Texas acreage is projected at 5.86 million, a 4.3 percent increase, and the Oklahoma area is expected at 188,000 acres, a 17.2 percent increase. Kansas also is expected to dramatically expand its cotton acreage this year.

Dr. Dan Krieg, professor of crop physiology at Texas Tech University, says there appears to be a better profit opportunity with cotton compared to the poor prices being received for grain crops.

“We’ll have an increase in acreage north of Lubbock, and with moisture, a larger dryland crop will be seen south of Lubbock compared to last year,” Krieg says. “Counties on the northern fringe will have lots more cotton than they have had in the past.”

Farmers in West Texas suffered through a tough 1998 production year marked by a severe drought and low prices. However, these farmers could be persuaded to plant an additional 100,000 to 200,000 acres of cotton despite the lingering conditions.

“As far as West Texas is concerned cotton is our only hope,” Krieg says. “We have to make good yields if we’re going to sell it cheap,” he adds.

Rita Schreiber, office manager at La Feria Coop in the lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV), explained in early March that grain prices were so low that farmers were hoping for salvation with cotton.

At the time, Schreiber believed the area would plant an amount equal to if not more than last year’s crop. She added that water was scarce in the valley, but most farmers felt like they have a better chance at growing cotton with less water than growing corn in these conditions.

“They are hoping the price is going to go up, but at the same time they are in shock it is so low,” Schreiber said.

Steve Marshall, gin manager at Lyford Coop in the LRGV, also said his members generally felt optimistic about the cotton crop this year.

“They must be optimistic because they’ve spent money on the crop,” Marshall said. The LRGV usually completes its cotton plantings by the middle of March, and by March 5 it was approximately 70 percent finished despite a lack of soil moisture.

Like Schreiber, Marshall said producers in his area were not pleased with prices and were counting on moisture and excellent yields.

Cris Gwinn, PCCA’s field representative in Taylor, TX, reported that region will see more cotton planted this year because of last year’s poor corn crop. There is a better chance of having a successful cotton crop than a corn crop because cotton is more drought resistant, Gwinn explained. He also noted many producers were hoping to increase their financial coverage by investing in more insurance this year.

“We were in better shape last year than this year because we had more moisture,” Gwinn recalled. He added a 15 percent increase in acres could be seen this year, but that increase will rely on cooperating weather conditions. Gwinn said planted acres in Central Texas could return to 1997 levels.

Don Clary, PCCA’s South Texas division manager, said in early March South Texas producers were planting, but attitudes were not positive as they faced the current low prices. He also said the area was very dry, but there was some good subsoil moisture.

“If we get down deep enough we’ve got moisture, but we do need a good rain,” Clary noted. He added South Texas should see more cotton acreage because producers are returning to a more normal planting rotation.

Stew Duncan, an area extension agronomist in Hutchison, KS, reported producers there have a positive outlook going into the planting season, and their acreage will expand again this year because cotton has been a profit-maker for them. Duncan said producers are going to take advantage of the opportunity to grow cotton because “at this point they have nothing to lose.” After hearing positive responses from winter meetings, Duncan estimated Kansas will plant 30,000 acres of cotton this year.

J.C. Banks, a cotton specialist at the extension service in Altus, OK, said acreage in Oklahoma should be up this year, especially with the boll weevil eradication program under way.

“The wheat price is down, so farmers will be grazing out wheat,” Banks explained. Agreeing with the National Cotton Council, Banks stated the Oklahoma area could be looking at 188,000 acres of cotton this year.

The cotton industry should see an overall increase in acreage despite the environmental and economic stresses many areas will face in the 1999-00 season. Many producers are optimistic. Meanwhile, they are acknowledging these concerns as they work toward a successful cotton crop.