What is in this article?:
- Cotton and corn in the Mid-South have long joint history.
- Mississippi agronomists discuss the changes occuring as corn acres expand in the region.
What is being lost
While excited about the expansion of grains, Larson admits the loss of cotton “has been sad in some respects. Corn will never be what cotton once was. Corn is a unique crop that works well in Southern production systems. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a place for cotton.
“It’s kind of sad that the economy has pushed agriculture away from cotton and that has meant a loss of infrastructure, acreage and confidence in it being the primary row crop.”
Dr. Will McCarty, a well known, veteran Mississippi State University cotton specialist and current independent consultant stationed in Brandon, Miss., says the transition has been bittersweet, at best.
“There is a succession in farming just as there is a succession of generations,” says McCarty. “At one time, there were a lot of cattle in the Delta, cotton was the staple a few other crops were grown. As the farms were handed down, the first thing the next generation did was sell the cattle and tear out the fences. They didn’t like working with them.”
Then, as the farms were again passed to the next generation, “they quit growing cotton and switched to grains. It just happens that way. Sad for those of us who worked so hard to make growing cotton easier, eradicate the boll weevil, develop more efficient practices and equipment, etc., and then growers stop planting large acreages of cotton.
“There’s a perception that growing grains is easier than cotton, that they require less investment in capital and perhaps work, and there’s less risk.”
One can’t argue that “really productive, irrigated land won’t produce high grain yields,” says McCarty. “And with today’s grain prices those crops are extremely attractive. Plus, when they plant grains they pretty much know what their production costs will be.
“Still, some degree of uncertainty of production cost and management intensity required, and some growers just don’t like those risk and uncertainties. The story is different for dry-land acres both in the Delta and non-Delta. Generally, cotton can handle more environmental stresses (drought and heat) in non-irrigated scenarios than can grains.”
McCarty frets that too few understand what moving away from cotton is doing in a broader sense. “I worry we’re being a little short-sighted. The turnover of cotton dollars in the rural economy and what it supports can’t easily be replaced by grains. Something will have to change if cotton acreage does not gravitate back upward.
“It would be interesting to know if there’s an economic study to see how high grain prices would have to be before they replace cotton in the community. Growing cotton takes more consultants, more aerial applicators, gins and gin workers, general inputs and thus cotton production dollars turn over several times in the local economy.”
Too few consider the ripples that occur when a gin shuts down, says McCarty. “When a gin locks the doors how many kilowatt hours of electricity will the little rural power association not get to sell? A gin burns a lot of electricity. Gins require parts and labor that help support local communities.”
Dollars are constantly being turned over in the cotton business. “Trucks are hauling cotton bales, trucks hauling cottonseed, distributors are selling fertilizer, selling insecticides, herbicides, defoliants, etc. Consultants are actively engaged in working with the crop. Mechanics and parts are needed to keep the equipment going. Energy is consumed by all these operations, to include irrigation systems.
“Corn and soybeans don’t require as much part-time labor as cotton. Those laborers lose the opportunity to work during the production cycle and at harvest, both on the farms and in the gins. And those workers tend to take their paycheck and spend it locally – at the gas station. Grocery stores, quick-stops and clothing stores.”
What about the ease or difficulty of going back to cotton from grains?
Switching back could be done “fairly easily and would require a cotton picker not needed in the grain operation,” says McCarty. That’s about the only difference in equipment – planters and sprayers can adapt.
“But you’d be coming back to cotton after losing a generation that knew how to grow the crop. Some folks would say, ‘You’re being facetious because you’re a cotton guy.’
“I’d argue that cotton is a different beast than grains. With cotton, you do something different every week. As the shift to grains continues, we’re steadily losing the skill set needed to grow cotton. That’s not saying a grain farmer can’t grow cotton, but it would require a willingness to learn about a slightly more complicated crop.
“Cotton is an indeterminate perennial and is a fascinating plant to manage. Corn and soybeans are determinate annuals and thus have different growth and fruiting habits than cotton. That isn’t a small thing. Let someone stay away from cotton for a few years and, if they want to transition back to it they’ll need a little help getting back in the groove, so to speak. That’s simply because they’ll have forgotten some of the management requirements.”
McCarty is careful to insist he isn’t saying “one farmer or crop is better than another, just that there are differences. I’m not saying one can’t switch crops. But growing cotton requires a little more effort to be expended. It’s almost like a labor of love.”
The best scenario, he says, would be a mix of all the major crops. “We have always known the advantages of crop rotations and our growers need to practice (it). We don’t need to be 100 percent corn or beans, or 100 percent cotton. We need a mix of cotton, corn and soybeans and a rotation program to allow those crops to maximize production on our varying soil types and land resource areas.
“If you look at some of the most successful farmers we have in the state, they’re working the same program they were 20 years ago. Rotation works.”
Does McCarty think there will be a shift back to cotton?
“It all depends on the price. I am hoping we will see a price move in the near future which would lead to a bit of an acreage increase in 2014. We’re in a different world, though. Cotton produced in other countries can compete with us.
“However, the mills seem as though they’d much rather have American-grown cotton than that grown overseas. We have a consistent, quality product. The bales will be uniform and clean. We just need the price paid to the grower to reflect that a little better.”