Cotton prices down this year


Cotton planting got off to a late start. Then came a disastrous drought coupled with scorching heat. Now an unusually wet fall is making fields a soggy mess to harvest.

But this year’s cotton crop had seemed so promising in the spring.

Missouri Bootheel farmers planted more cotton acres, about 400,000 this year, up from 375,000 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service. Every other cotton-growing state decreased its acres this year.

Now, farmers who struggled all summer to keep their cotton alive aren’t going to have much return on their investment.

Cotton prices are down 31 percent from one year ago, according to the Chicago Board of Trade. They’ve fallen 5 percent in the past month.

Meanwhile, prices for other commodities continue to rise.

Soybean prices are up nearly 32 percent and corn prices are up 22 percent from this time last year.

Davis Minton, a Dexter cotton farmer, said he is perplexed by falling cotton prices. Tuesday’s price was at 71 cents per pound.

“Cotton prices have not kept up with other commodities like corn, soybeans and wheat. We’re looking at some depressed prices. If I knew why, I wouldn’t have to be farming. You can look at foreign markets, the value of the dollar, everything that affects every other commodity affects cotton, but right now we’re just in a downward spiral,” Minton said.

The current price is below the federal crop insurance guarantee price of 93 cents per pound, established in February. Depending on whether or not farmers purchased crop insurance and how much they purchased, many in the Bootheel will be able to seek assistance through their insurance company, he said.

According to the USDA, about 38 percent of Missouri’s cotton — grown exclusively in the Bootheel — has been harvested at this time. The harvest is about four days ahead of last year.

The affect of the drought and heat is clear in this year’s crop condition.

Thirty-four percent of cotton harvested this year is considered in poor or very poor condition; 35 percent is in fair condition; only 31 percent is considered good or excellent.

Cotton typically does better than most crops in dry weather, but this year’s heat affected the length of the cotton fibers, according to Andrea Jones, cotton specialist at the University of Missouri Delta Research Center in Portageville, Mo. She’s waiting further test results on the strength and quality of cotton grown in the Bootheel this year, which is now underway in Texas.

On non-irrigated fields, yields are about 750 pounds per acre; fields with irrigation fared much better, yielding 1,250 pounds per acre, she said. Missouri’s average yield in 2011 for irrigated and non-irrigated combined was 969 pounds, according to the USDA. The USDA does not track irrigated and non-irrigated separately and this is the first year Jones has done a non-irrigated crop trial.

Many fields had to be watered in order to get the cotton plants to come up and during the time seeds sat in the ground the pesticide treatments were not activated.

Normally, pests called thrips are warded off by the seed treatments, but that wasn’t the case this year, said Jones. Crops had to be sprayed to keep these insects from damaging them early in their growing season.

Most farmers were way over their budget for electricity or diesel to power their irrigation systems.

Minton said he irrigated an extra 40 percent this year, compared to normal irrigation. He also has more maintenance and repair costs from constantly running his pumps. Cotton farmers did not qualify for any of the state’s emergency drought relief programs. It was too late in their irrigation season to have helped much anyway, he said.

“We had a lot of wells that went bad and a lot of repair bills,” he said.

Not only is heavy irrigation expensive, it actually kept the plants from developing deep enough root systems, Jones said.

“When you have to start watering early, your roots don’t strengthen. You get a crop that has a hard time standing up because the roots weren’t strong,” she said.

While this doesn’t affect the cotton picker machines’ ability to harvest the cotton, it can cause problems if it rains, leaving the cotton bolls to sink into the mud.

As a child growing up near Dexter, Mo., Minton dragged a sack behind him as he picked cotton by hand, but modern, high-tech cotton picking machines are helping farmers come harvest time.

“Nothing rivals the technology of these cotton pickers. It is absolutely astonishing what they are capable of doing and the engineering designs that went into them,” he said.

In fact, the technology bootheel farmers have at their disposal is helping them overcome adverse environmental conditions like this year’s drought and last year’s floods.

“Bootheel farmers are good at what we do. There’s always next year, that’s the way we look at it,” Minton said.