ROPESVILLE – A brittle brown stalk of cotton rises against the barren field near here, a tombstone for a harvest that never happened.
It’s a straggler, overlooked by the equipment that plowed the rest of this field back into the parched earth weeks ago.
Across the High Plains, dry land cotton fields resemble pictures sent back from the Mars rover – field after field of lifeless red soil that testify to the state’s costliest drought. Its financial impact blows through the High Plains economy like the dust devils that spring from the empty land.
The occasional irrigated swatches of green are the only hope for farmers like Dahlen Hancock, who works more than 5,800 acres of cotton southwest of Lubbock. Even irrigated fields are struggling, but Hancock hopes he can salvage some sort of harvest.
“We’re trying to figure out how to limp along with half a crop,” Hancock, 52, told me as we sat in his dusty pickup surveying his fields.
Hancock, a fourth-generation farmer, has already lost 3,000 acres of dry land cotton. Much of his remaining acreage, like most fields in the High Plains, uses supplemental water, but without rainfall, it simply isn’t enough to beat back the drought.
Cotton plants that are supposed to be waist high by this time of the season are just a few inches tall. Their sparse bolls are tinted purple, a sign of stress.
He’s counting on the 25 percent or so of his fields with the best irrigation, where the cotton plants are tall and bursting with plump green bolls, to get him through.
The entire region is expected to produce only about 2 million bales by the time the harvest is completed at year’s end, according to Plains Cotton Growers, a trade association. That’s a big drop from the 5.3 million harvested last year.
Statewide, the drought is expected to cost cotton growers $1.8 billion, about the value of last year’s production. In other words, the industry will spend everything it took in.
“That’s a lot of cost to raise a substandard crop,” said Shawn Wade, with the growers association.
Agriculture statewide is devastated. The Texas AgriLife Extension Service recently estimated the total economic impact of the drought at a record $5.2 billion.
Like most farmers, Hancock purchases crop insurance that will help offset the losses from a poor harvest, but it won’t cover all of them.
With scientists predicting that the drought could persist through the winter and worsen next summer, farmers are worried. The longer a drought lasts, the more its financial impact compounds, battering rural economies.
Hancock, for example, faces higher costs for things that insurance doesn’t cover, like power to run irrigation pumps. Last year, he spent about $35 an acre for energy; this year, he’s estimating it will be closer to $65.
Other costs, from seed and fertilizer to insurance premiums, are likely to rise next year, too, adding to his expenses. He’s adopted planting techniques that maximize yields and minimize water usage, but it’s a feeble weapon against the drought’s severity.
“The cost of doing business is going to go up,” Hancock said. “I don’t know that we’ve seen the full effects.”
He’s trying to cut other expenses. He typically hires three or four laborers during the growing season, but this summer, he hasn’t.
Less work at gins
Area cotton gins are planning to hire fewer crews, too, and they’re buying fewer supplies. Last year, Lubbock Cotton Growers ginned 82,000 bales. This year, operator Jerry Butman is expecting at most 30,000. The entire harvest will be processed in a month, using 12-hour shifts, he said, rather than the usual three months of 24-hour shifts.
“We’ll hire half as many people,” Butman said.
At the Meadow Co-Op Gin just up the road from here, Dan Jackson is predicting a harvest about a third the size of last year’s, and “that gets bleaker almost daily.” He’s also planning to hire about half his typical crew of 38.
“We’re going to operate at a loss because we just won’t have the volume,” Jackson said.
Eventually, the effects will be felt on the Gulf Coast, too, because gins in the High Plains will be sending fewer exports through the Port of Houston. Cotton futures have fallen as overseas buyers have been cutting orders for U.S. cotton amid fears that the drought will gut production. Canceled orders exceeded sales for nine of the past 10 weeks, Bloomberg News reported.
Machinery sales to suffer
Meanwhile, High Plains equipment suppliers like Joe Hurst say they expect to sell fewer strippers and other harvest equipment heading into next season. His parts and service business at his five locations around the Lubbock area has already fallen by as much as 75 percent.
In a typical season, Hurst might sell 180 new and used machines, but between the end of the harvest in December and the start of planting in May, he’s expecting to sell only about 60.
“That’s going to be my biggest killer right there, the harvest equipment,” he said. “We’re looking at a pretty bleak harvest season.”
From the sky, irrigated fields are supposed to grow in lush, green circles around their water pivots. This year, many are spotted with brown, as if nature’s brush were running out of paint.
Jackson, though, sees the drought’s devastation in a different color: “This thing, economically, is going to be a huge, huge black hole for this part of the world.”