Average but disappointing cotton crop follows low prices, dry August

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Rain fell, but not enough at key times.

The market didn’t look great either.

Despite heavy optimism at an extra-wet planting time, 2015 does not appear to be a record year for cotton. While only a few fields are still waiting to see a stripper, much of the crop that has left the ground seems mediocre.

“It’s not what I expected at the beginning of the year,” said Lloyd Arthur, who farms in central Crosby County. “Some of it’s considerably less. We were very disappointed on some of our irrigated land.”

Early estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service suggest the High Plains area will produce just over four million bales this season. That’s the highest number since 2010, but “early estimates” are key words — official counts could vary.

Near Littlefield, Brad Heffington is wrapping up a harvest that’s good, but narrowly missed greatness.

“The cotton we’re harvesting now seems to be good quality,” he said. “We would have had a bumper crop if we had got a little rain in August, but the crop is still at least average.”

Region-wide, Mary Jane Buerkle estimates harvest is close to 95 percent complete. The Plains Cotton Growers communications director is reminded of periodic rainfall throughout the picking season that kept farmers from their fields. Now, it’s catch-up time before the next precipitation event.

“Those who still have cotton in the field are working as diligently as they can to get it harvested and move on toward 2016,” she said.

Like the farmers she represents, Buerkle was disappointed with the dry late summer.

“It’s just another example of how timing really is everything with regard to producing a cotton crop,” she said. “That August rain can make a world of difference.”

Arthur in Ralls has also noticed a quality drop he attributes to the severe weather that periodically interrupted harvest. While it’s certainly usable, he doesn’t anticipate top grades.

Market troubles aren’t helping cotton, either. Prices are down, as is demand.

“It’s gonna be an economical stress with lower prices and lower quality of our cotton,” Arthur said.

And he’s not the only one with worries.

“It’s putting incredible stress on the farmer directly, and indirectly on lenders, seed dealers and other participants in that system,” said Darren Hudson, a Texas Tech agricultural economist.

But hypothetically, what if a rainy August had brought record yields — would that volume offset miniscule profit margins?

Possibly, and only to a point, Hudson suggested:

“To some extent you can out-yield price, but this year we didn’t do it.”

Hudson is not confident about cotton prices rebounding soon. He said a jump would be possible, though, if some type of weather event — say, a drought in India — hurts the global supply.

In the likely scenario they’ll stay low, what’s a cotton farmer to do? Prices aren’t much better for alternative crops such as sorghum.

But then again, it’s hard for them to drop any further.

“There aren’t many fundamental signals that could cause prices to get lower,” Hudson said. “There’s more upside potential than downside at this point.”

For more feasibly good news, check the weather forecast. Wetter-than-normal conditions from 2015 could linger.

“Price isn’t helping us much, but on the positive side, moisture is good, and if El Niño continues through the winter months, we should be going into planting with good moisture,” Hudson said. “That’s a cost-saver for the irrigated producer and a lifesaver to the dryland producer … There is some reason for optimism.”

And while demand is down, it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Buerkle, of Plains Cotton Growers, offers advice to South Plains shoppers concerned for their farming neighbors:

“Whenever you’re at the store, remember to think cotton. Check the tag — be sure it has cotton in it.”

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