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Tufts of White in a Sea of Wheat

Cotton Production is on the Rise in Kansas

By Lynette Cockerell

As fall gradually turns to winter, islands of stark-white cotton stand out sharply in the sea of hard red winter wheat covering the Kansas plains.

Although wheat still is the undisputed king in southern and central Kansas, poor returns on more traditional crops in recent years have forced an increasing number of farmers to turn to such alternative crops as cotton to boost their bottom lines.

With 60,000 acres of cotton planted in 2002, Kansas still is a small player, well behind Texas, the nation’s largest cotton producing state with 5.8 million planted acres. However, cotton acreage in Kansas has increased dramatically in the last seven years from just 3,800 acres in 1995, making cotton one of the fastest growing new commodities in the state.

With the boom in cotton production came the necessity for cotton gins to be built in the state. Several producers in the Winfield, Kan., area had grown cotton for almost 10 years, hauling their crops to Oklahoma for ginning before joining with other cotton farmers there to form Southern Kansas Cotton Growers (SKCG) in 1996.

SKCG ginned just 4,449 bales in its inaugural year and six years later expects to gin more than 14,000 bales of 2002-crop cotton. Gene Latham, SKCG manager, says he was surprised to find that some portions of southern Kansas actually have better cotton growing conditions than areas of the Texas High Plains where approximately 3.0 million bales of cotton are produced each year.

“Through researching 30 years of weather data, I found that our area records more heat units in the summer than Lubbock, and unlike many areas of the High Plains, we are never hit by a cool spell in the growing season,” Latham says. “With optimum weather conditions, it’s possible for some of our growers to produce 1,300 to 1,400 pounds of cotton per acre; the potential is astounding,” he adds.

Conventional wisdom led Kansas cotton producers to believe they must plant short-season cotton varieties to avoid early-season frost. Currently, some SKCG producers are experimenting with conventional, longer-season varieties like those planted in Texas and Oklahoma in order to boost cotton quality and yield potential.

Although SKCG has been in business more than five years, Latham says the gin still is a novelty to Kansans. More than 200 people have toured the operation since ginning began this season.

“We’re pretty proud of our facility and more than happy to educate people about cotton,” Latham says. “You never know, some of these folks may decide to become cotton producers someday,” he adds with a grin.

OKKAN Cotton Cooperative Gin, in Anthony, Kan., opened for business in 1998. Cotton became a staple crop in the area after growers realized they could make more money with cotton than they could with conventional crops even after hauling it the long distance to Burns Flat, Okla., to be ginned. In order to receive the most money possible from their crop, a cooperative was formed at Anthony to eliminate the high cost of transporting cotton to another state for ginning.

According to OKKAN Manager Gary Feist, cotton producers have suffered through three years of drought in a predominately dryland cotton area resulting in a small decrease in cotton acreage.

“Luckily, despite the loss of acreage, a close-to-normal dryland crop and an increase in irrigated acres have boosted yields and will keep the number of bales we gin fairly consistent this year,” Feist says.

The installation of irrigation systems could mean a long-term commitment to growing cotton in the Anthony area. OKKAN cotton producers have persevered, and Feist is confident about the future of the crop in the gin’s large service area.

“A growing season with normal, adequate rainfall is exactly what we’ve been needing,” he explains. “There’s no telling what kind of yields we could get in this area when the weather cooperates, and it will cooperate eventually,” Feist says optimistically.

A new gin made its debut in Moscow, Kan., this season as cotton producers in the area managed to erect Northwest Cotton Growers Cooperative from the ground up in just six months. For several years, cotton farmers in the area had been hauling their cotton to Hereford, Texas, for ginning.

“The freight charges for hauling cotton more than 225 miles was eating away the bottom line for the cotton growers in our area, so they elected to build a brand new gin,” says Northwest Cotton Growers Manager Gary Moore.

Estimates for the ending bale count at the new gin vary wildly among the interested parties in Moscow, but Moore believes he will gin approximately 30,000 bales of 2002-03 crop cotton.

“I think 30,000 bales will be a pretty respectable number for our first year,” Moore comments. “We are a bit behind due to bad weather and the inevitable ‘gremlins’ you find in a new gin, but the season ahead looks great. We have a great gin, good farmers and a wonderful group of employees,” he concludes.

With increased cotton production in Kansas and a scarcity of gins in the region, some cotton still is ginned in Oklahoma. Great Plains Cooperative Gin, now in its fourth year of operation in Blackwell, Okla., always has ginned some Kansas cotton, but the amount of cotton brought across the state line grows steadily each year. Debra Wolfe, the assistant manager at Great Plains, estimates up to 60 percent of the cotton to be ginned in 2002-03 will be hauled in from Kansas farms.

“For our Kansas producers, we haul a module and a half each trip to make the freight charge feasible for them,” Wolfe explains. “Each year, more cotton is being grown in areas where it never has been before. I expect the amount of cotton we receive from Kansas to increase each year as new producers sign on with the gin and as our current farmers increase their cotton acreage,” she adds.

Representatives from these four cooperative gins agree that cotton production in Kansas has endless potential, and acres planted to the commodity will continue to rise in the coming years. For now, wheat continues to reign in Kansas, but King Cotton certainly is making its presence known.