For Louisiana cotton producers, Hurricane Gustav couldn't have hit at a worse time. Much of the cotton crop was open and ready for harvest, but languishing under late-season rains that had settled over much of the state, keeping pickers in the shed and producers on high alert.
Then Gustav delivered a fatal blow to the crop, with high winds stripping exposed fiber from the plant and torrents of rain flooding fields. The loss to the Louisiana cotton crop is approaching 45 percent, with some farmers reporting 100 percent losses.
“We have so much water, and we had so much of the crop still in the field,” said Roger Carter, a consultant in Clayton, La., which is northeast of Alexandria. “That's the killer.
“I've seen hurricanes worse than this. Audrey, in 1957, was worse, but it came in late June. Others have come through after we had 90 percent of the crop out. This one, we had 98 percent or more of the cotton still in the field. Sixty to 70 percent of the soybeans were still in the field.”
Carter estimates that over half of the cotton in the area he serves — south Tensas, south Franklin, Concordia, Catahoula and northern Avoyelles parishes — was lost. “Right now, we're waiting for the insurance adjusters to make a decision on what they're going to do before we try to finish harvesting. We don't know how much is out there.
“We know there are some fields that have absolutely no cotton left that went completely under water. We also have fields that were 100 percent open. It was droughty cotton hanging loosely in the bur as it was. Gustav took it out.
“It wasn't just the hurricane and the wind or the 20-plus inches of rain. It was the fact that we had three weeks of wet weather prior to that when we only had maybe a day or two days of sunshine. A lot of the crop had already rotted.”
Carter says that about 80 percent of the corn in his area was already harvested and about 20 percent of the rice crop had been gathered when the storm hit. “The rice that did the worst went under 6 feet of water and stayed there several days.”
Many farmers are asking what to do, Carter says. “We're trying to gather as much information as we can to give to the agriculture commissioner to take to Washington. We do understand that the Risk Management Agency is meeting with insurance adjusters to come up with some criteria on how to measure the losses in a cotton field.
“We'd like to be able to collect on our insurance checks, then let us go pick the cotton. Then there might not be as much need for disaster money. There is a value out there, but if they subtract that value from what we would get on insurance checks, then there's not enough there to justify doing the picking. So consequently, we would have to destroy the crop even though it may have a little bit of value. We would like to recoup some of our losses.”
At the time of this writing, Louisiana growers were still trying to figure out what to do about Hurricane Ike, which was headed toward the Texas coast, noted Carter. “If we put defoliant out and it gets to raining, we've spent the money and may not have anything to harvest after Ike comes through.”
“It's pretty nasty,” said Cheneyville, La., crop consultant Grady Coburn on the impact of Gustav. “Our cotton crop was just to the point of defoliation and/or ready to be defoliated. It pretty much has been picked by Gustav. A lot of cotton is on the ground and it's all sprouted now, of course.
“There are some bolls starting to open in the top to make it look better than it did look. Personally, I feel like we've lost 50 percent to 60 percent of our potential yield if not a little bit more.”
Coburn, whose clients are south of Alexandria, La., says that many soybean and rice fields are still underwater. “Fortunately, we had most of the corn crop out, and we can salvage a fair portion of what was left in the field. The sugarcane crop is all tied in knots, and this has really hindered planting. But with these combines, we'll be able to pick it up as long as it's not too soggy at harvest.”
Since Gustav, Louisiana has had excellent weather to get crops out, according to Coburn. “But farmers have been waiting on adjusters to come take a look before they do anything. Others, and it may be because of the type of insurance they have, have elected to go get what they can get. There have been a lot of soybeans harvested in the last five or six days.
“We have been assured by Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain that he is going to do everything in his power to get growers impacted by the storm some sort of help,” Coburn said. “He hasn't detailed what that is, but I'm convinced that he is personally and professionally committed to getting some help for our Louisiana producers.”
Louisiana Extension cotton specialist Sandy Stewart estimates cotton yield losses of 40 percent to 45 percent statewide. “In localized areas, and these aren't small areas, we have some fields that have lost from 60 percent to 100 percent of their yield.
“It sounds unbelievable to have that much loss. But it's not all out on the ground. A lot of the open bolls are decomposed or hardlocked. So the number of pickable bolls on the plants are very few and far between. We also have a quality issue for the cotton that is going to be harvested because I have yet to step in a cotton field that doesn't have some sprouted seed in the boll.”
Younger cotton has fared better, according to Stewart. “In fact the double-crop acres we have (after wheat) may end up being some of the best cotton we have left.”
“It's pretty difficult on producers right now,” Stewart said. “It's a question of what to do now with the insurance adjustment. For a lot of the fields, it's not justified to put a picker in them.”