Thick, golden wheat currently dominates farmland on the short, flat stretch between east Arkansas’ Marvell south to Cypert. It is much the same throughout the Delta and John Hall, sitting at a table in his shop, says harvesting would be in full swing if not for frequent rains.
Hall, a veteran producer, is optimistic about wheat yields this year -- but wheat isn’t the grain causing profound changes in the area. Over the last few years, corn has largely taken over and cotton acreage has taken a tumble. A sign of times: the Goodluck Gin, just down the road, has been shuttered for the first time since 1973. There isn’t enough cotton to justify keeping it open.
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“We tried to hold on with the decision as long as possible,” Hall explains. “I thought farmers might shift back to cotton when the wet weather was so difficult in April. But it became apparent that farmers, if they couldn’t plant corn, would be going with soybeans over cotton.”
One area cotton producer “sold all his cotton equipment and planted corn. We were left with maybe 1,700 to 1,800 acres of cotton in this area, total. That wouldn’t have been enough to keep the gin open.
“It isn’t for a lack of trying or understanding the situation. Being in business means you have to go where the dollars are. There isn’t much room to be sentimental.
“For the gin, we had to pay insurance, the workers’ compensation and all the rest. That bill was coming due at the first of May. Well, we didn’t want to spend $75,000 while we’re staring at a lack of cotton – even though we have good, two-bale yields -- to pay for it.”
The board decided to close for 2013 and see how things work out. “We’re not walking away from the gin – we’re just taking a break for a year to see what develops in 2014. The gin hasn’t been taken apart and we’ve still got a man overseeing things and keeping things clean and working.”
The turn to favoring corn has been rapid.
“We hit peak cotton acreage about five years ago,” says Hall. “In the three gins around here, we ginned about 150,000 bales. Then, that total dropped to 100,000 bales and it kept moving down every year.”
In the last two years, Goodluck ginned less than 10,000 bales.
Of the three area gins – Hall describes them as a “triangle” – only one will be open this fall. There is “no doubt at all,” he says, that the reason is corn.
Cotton and corn: a short history
The distinct trend away from cotton and to grains in the Mid-South began showing up in earnest a few years ago. The history between the two, though, began much earlier.
“There is an interesting history of corn acreage in Mississippi, beginning shortly after the Civil War,” Erick Larson, Mississippi State University corn specialist.
It turns out the state harvested over one million acres of corn around 1866 and 1867. Corn acreage steadily increased to two million acres in 1894. There were almost three million corn acres in the state in 1917 and that total was exceeded in 1921.
“Basically, Mississippi maintained over one million corn acres until 1960,” says Larson. “That was largely because the animals used to work the ground needed to be fed. When mechanization improved and power equipment became good enough to plow the land, the need to grow corn decreased.”
For more on cotton and corn in the Delta see here.
That’s why, by 1970, Mississippi only had 223,000 acres of corn. By 1980, the state had less than 100,000 acres of corn. As mechanization took hold, corn was hardly grown as a cash crop.
“In 1990, we still had only 140,000 acres. In the following years corn planting began to pick up. Between 1992 and 1995, acreage was between 190,000 and 275,000.”
Then, there was a drastic upswing in 2007 when Mississippi producers planted 930,000 acres of corn. “We still haven’t eclipsed that high mark but have been working towards it with over 700,000 acres since 2007,” says Larson. “That’s been dictated by commodity markets – corn and soybeans have been very favorable compared to cotton during that time period.”
While excited about the expansion of grains, Larson admits the loss of cotton “has been sad in some respects. … 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.”
Back in Cypert
Hall was born and raised in Cypert. His father was a city man, brought up in nearby Helena, although his mother was raised here. Hall’s father didn’t come to the farm until 1935.
“I took over the farm in 1973 and worked with my two brothers. More recently, my son, Mark, came home from college and started farming with me. I’ve turned the farm over to him to run.”
A second son, a physician, still works in the area.
As far as an acreage breakdown, “We’ve got about 1,500 acres of cotton, 600 acres of wheat and 1,500 of soybeans. Of course, we’ll double-crop the wheat with beans.
“The wheat looks really good, so far. We harvested a little bit a couple of days ago and it was promising. The strip we cut had a good test weight and I’m guessing we’ll be around 75 bushels. We cut about 3,000 bushels before rain chased us out of the field.”
What will it take to boost cotton acreage again?
“First,” says Hall, “the price has to go up. Producers say they can’t raise it at current prices, that they’d lose money. Everyone is different, although we’ve been doing pretty well with cotton – yields and selling at a decent price through Staplcotn.”
And when cotton comes back, Hall has faith that modern technology will ease the transition. “Cotton isn’t a bear to grow around here. It’s plenty finicky at the beginning but once it’s up and going, it’s tough.
“With the modern technologies now available I don’t think it will be hard to go back to cotton.”
Another ingredient in the mix is the desire of producers to update equipment. “Everyone seems to want to get rid of old equipment and buy the new round-bale pickers. But those machines are expensive. You know, it’s hard to work out paying for a $600,000 picker with 80-cent cotton.
“The round baling is very attractive because of the labor situation here. We just don’t have enough labor in this area.”
Surprisingly, that isn’t the case with the Goodluck crew. “We have a good, local crew. A lot of women work at the gin. They run our press and our scales.” The ginner and his father “run the yard and take care of the plant for us.”
The gin is a four-stand, “but it isn’t at 50- or 60-bale-per-hour capacity. Around 35 bales is all we can do in an hour. Since 1972, it was added on to. We put module builder heads in and added press rams and things like that. We certainly keep it up. But it was designed for between 30 to 40 bales per hour. You can’t get more out of it without putting in a lot more money to put in faster stands and the like.”
The move to corn began with farmers “easing into it.” But then, over the last two years, corn tightened its grip on the valentine.
“When the price of soybeans spiked so high the cotton acres starting tanking,” says Hall. “Then, corn prices took off and everyone jumped on that train. Corn brings in, typically, anywhere from 180 to 210 bushels (per acre).
“This area is ahead of the game because we have excellent water. We’re close enough to the (Mississippi) River and haven’t had a lot of rice acreage here to suck the water table down.”
Hall gestures to shiny center pivots in the distance making slow rotations over young corn.
“In the last 30 years – after the 1980 ‘burnout’ – is when irrigation really was adopted here. After that exceptionally hot summer in 1980, farmers said ‘we can’t stand this anymore’ and started looking to irrigate more and more.
“When cotton comes back, we’re set up for it. It’ll happen.”