Since he’s very careful when choosing words, it’s striking that Billy Guthrie uses the word “bloodbath” to describe what he fears could soon strike Louisiana agriculture.
After hurricane-spawned rains and wind ripped through Louisiana row crops, “we’re looking at about half a cotton crop,” says the producer/ginner from Newellton, in the northeast region of Louisiana. “We’ll gin slightly less than half of what we wanted to and be finished ginning by Halloween. Our stalks will be cut by then, too.”
And the quality of the diminished crop isn’t good. “So far, on loan value, we’re a dime off last year.”
At the Tanner Gin in Frogmore — about an hour’s drive south of Newellton — ginner Randy Ainsworth says prior to Hurricane Gustav the gin was expecting to work some 13,000 acres of cotton.
“The crop was at least average to better-than-average — a 2- or 2.5-bale crop,” says the innovative ginner (see http://deltafarmpress.com/cotton/070917-Ainsworth-Gin/index.html). “That led us to believe we’d gin somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 to 30,000 bales. Now, we’re hoping for 5,000 bales.”
Hurricane Gustav dumped around 20 inches of rain on Frogmore along with sustained, 60 to 70 mile-per-hour winds. The wind blew much of the cotton off the stalk and the torrential rains “knocked a bunch more off. After the heavy rains ended, the weather changed to a few days of grey, cloudy skies with intermittent showers. That caused seed in the cotton to sprout.”
The remaining cotton is averaging about a bale per acre in yield. Out of that bale, at least half the seed “is no-grade, no good. The cotton quality has also been badly hurt. The grades aren’t up to snuff. With a lot of re-growth due the rains, we’re seeing a lot of high-leaf and short staple.
“All that’s helping some growers make the decision not to pick their cotton. They’re thinking, ‘Well, I may pick a bale. But if the grades are horrible, I can’t make any money.’
“So, we’re having growers zero their crop out. There are a lot of people bush-hogging instead of picking. They’re out doing that as we speak.”
Both well-respected ginners say it would be difficult to overstate the implications for rural Louisiana.
“The real hit — the realization of what’s going on — hasn’t really happened yet,” says Guthrie. “People are still harvesting and doing fall land prep and the like. But when the season winds down, everyone catches their breath and gets out of the busy mode, it’ll hit home. We’re in for a long winter. From what I’m seeing the economy won’t be bad, it’ll be really bad.”
A rise in rural unemployment is inevitable, says Ainsworth. “There won’t be the money available to keep local businesses going. The parts houses won’t do as much business because harvesting equipment won’t be running and so won’t be breaking down. Actually, there have already been lay-offs at local stores.
“Unfortunately, the same is true in the cotton gins. We’re not immune. Since we’re only going to gin 5,000 bales, the guys that normally work 80 hours a week for six to eight weeks will be cut back to eight hours a day. We’re not even running two shifts — just a regular, eight-hour day.”
The gin layoffs are bad for cotton’s future, says Ainsworth. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, but we’re praying cotton acreage comes back next year. Well, if you’re forced to let good help go, they’re going somewhere else: oil fields, wherever.
“The chances of getting that skilled worker back — the guys that are worth their salt — are nearly zero. Unless he’s just a homeboy that would never move and wants to ride this situation out, he’s gone. In our area there aren’t that many good-paying jobs.”
And it isn’t just cotton and farmers that have taken a series of blows.
“Listen, this is hitting grain elevators, cotton buyers — the whole spectrum of agriculture,” says Guthrie. “And to make it even worse, we’ve got this credit crunch and debacle on Wall Street. What will that mean?
“If it was just the hurricane damage, it would be bad enough. But add in the credit crisis and, man, we’re in uncharted territory. This is serious, serious business.”
To see more Delta Farm Press hurricane coverage, visit http://deltafarmpress.com/hurricane/.