In a recent whirlwind tour of several Delta farms, Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Lester Spell got a first-hand look at crop fields devastated by extended periods of high humidity levels and heavy rainfall throughout August and early September.

What Spell and his fellow politicians, including Mississippi state legislator Steve Holland, saw on their Sept. 7 tour were cotton fields with open bolls that were rotted, hard-locked or sprouting due to germinating cottonseed. The group also toured deteriorating soybean plants and milo crops that more resembled Medusa's hairstyle than a mature seedhead.

Lee Watts of Greenwood, Miss., says just a few weeks ago he had a “tremendous crop” of milo and now, due to germinating seed that same field is almost not harvestable. His Leflore County farm, he says, received about eight inches of rain between Aug. 28 and Sept. 7.

“I took it to the mill yesterday and they docked me 25- to 28-cents per bushel. That means the price dropped from yesterday's price of $1.96 a bushel to $1.20 a bushel. Plus, when the milo goes through a combine in this condition, we know we will probably lose at least 50 percent of the grain out the back of the combine,” Watts says. “Like they told me at the mill, my best option at this point is to put a levee up around the field and duck hunt it. And with my luck, the ducks would probably see the sprouts and continue flying.”

The outlook for the area's cotton crop is similarly as grim, according to Will McCarty, Extension cotton specialist at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss. The new reality for many farmers is what last month they considered to be their best cotton crop ever, may now be at best an average to below-average crop.

The seed germination problem, he says, is occurring throughout Mississippi, but the cotton fields hardest hit appear to be located south of Highway 8, followed by those located in the area between Highway 8 and Highway 6.

McCarty says the most heavily damaged cotton is the early maturing cotton, which was planted on time and whose bolls were opening when the period of high humidity and heavy rainfall hit the Mississippi Delta. “This area has received anywhere from 11 to 13 inches of rain over a two- to three-week period with temperatures averaging 85 to 90 degrees during the day and 70 plus degrees at night. In a seed germination chamber they maintain temperatures of 86 degrees with 100 percent humidity. That's the weather we've had and that's why we've had so much germination of seed on the stalk,” he explains.

“In 1984, we had some 20 odd consecutive days of rain but it was later in the season and we had already begun harvest so we did not have the seed sprouting problem that we've got this year,” McCarty says. “I have never seen cotton sprout on the plant like I have this year. This boll rot is going to progress further up the stock and we're likely going to see more hardlock. We're losing weight and we're losing fiber everyday.”

McCarty says he expects quite a bit of the region's early-maturing cotton crop to receive grades of 42, 52 or 62, and says some likely will receive grades low enough to make it ineligible for the government loan program. “As those numbers get higher, the discounts get higher. The price of cotton is already terrible and by the time you discount it, it's even worse.

In addition, McCarty says, the seed quality of the affected cotton is deteriorating to the point where it could become non-merchantable. This, he says, is going to cause tremendous problems at the gin both for the ginner, and then the grower as the increased ginning costs are passed onto the cotton grower. “What you have, in essence, is a best case scenario of cottonseed worth $40 to $55 per ton and it takes most gins $75 to $90 per ton to break even.”

Bill Kennedy of Duncan Gin in Inverness, Miss., adds, “These figures all assume that we can gin at full capacity, which we won't be able to do. When we have to slow down to half-rate, the cost increases are going to be 50 percent more. That means the crop is going to have to sit in the field longer if we have to slow down to half-speed.”

Another complicating issue with this cotton, McCarty says, is that the cotton that has sprouted is high moisture and will be very difficult to dry down. “Most of the Delta's cotton is moduled, and when your cotton is put in a module and you get a 20-degree rise in temperature inside that module, it's got to be ginned off fast. But, because of ginning capacity much of this cotton is going to sit in the modules waiting to be ginned and it will continue to heat and further deteriorate in the modules.”


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com