Mississippi producers, it seems, can't catch a break this fall. First it was Tropical Storm Isidore, then Hurricane Lili made its way to the Delta, and then a front passed through dumping even more rain on already saturated cotton and soybean fields.
“What we're experiencing right now is not good,” says Extension soybean specialist Alan Blaine at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss. “We need pretty, sunny weather until we can get this crop out, but instead we are getting foggy days and continuing showers.”
Mississippi's soybean crop was about 50 percent harvested when the rains started falling. Another 10 percent of the state's soybean crop was ready to be harvested.
“Hurricane Lili could have been a lot worse. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, but we were already set back after Isidore, and we sure didn't need the additional rain we've gotten since Lili passed through the Delta,” Blaine says. “We're not getting the weather we need to get in the field.”
Blaine says the extended wet conditions will have an adverse effect on crop quality, especially in that portion of the state's crop that has reached physiological maturity.
A soybean crop reaches physiological maturity two to three weeks prior to harvest maturity. That means the crop is exposed for quite some type before harvest, and crop quality decreases every day adverse weather conditions are present after physiological maturity is reached.
“We have a jump on some of our neighboring states because we're over 50 percent harvested at this point, but we still have a ways to go. I'm expecting to see pre-rain yield levels and post-rain yield levels, and we're going to see quite a difference between the two.”
Complicating matters, continuing showers are causing flooding in some areas of the state. “We've got some flooding across the state, but particularly in Tallahatchie County, and in some hill areas. Even with the water slowly receding, a lot of water is staying in these fields,” Blaine says.
If the continuing showers cease, and Delta growers are blessed with some good warm drying weather, harvest efficiency will be a good deal less than it would have been prior to the recent storms.
“Who's to say it's even going to dry out, but if it does dry out growers are going to be faced with additional field work before they plant next year's crop,” he says.
“A portion of this crop wasn't ready to be harvested when the rains hit, and that small portion benefited from these rains because we were so dry in some areas of the state. We're also in better shape now with the cooler temperatures we're experiencing. If it was extremely hot, the outlook for the state's soybean crop would be worse.”
Much the same for cotton.
Will McCarty, Extension cotton specialist for Mississippi, sums up the current situation this way: “We're behind.”
Prior to Tropical Storm Isidore, Delta cotton growers were picking a much better crop than had been projected. Growers who thought they would harvest 800 pounds of lint per acre were picking 1,000 pounds per acre. Those who thought they had a 1,000-pound crop were finding 1,200 pounds in the picker. What's more, modules were ginning out two or three bales more than growers expected in many cases.
Overall, cotton yields were very promising in Mississippi.
Then came Isidore, which dropped anywhere from 12 inches down to 3 inches of rain on the state. “We actually had some cotton in southwest Mississippi that went completely underwater for a few hours. Entire fields of 4-foot tall cotton completely submerged in flash flood conditions,” says McCarty.
“We survived, but it strung the cotton out. Fields across the state dried out enough to get pickers back in the field the following Monday or Tuesday, but yields were quite a bit lower.”
To growers the threat of Hurricane Lili was as good as pouring salt in an open wound.
“When Lili hit land and lost its power, it saved our crop. If Lili had come up through the central Delta with extremely high winds, it would have decimated the cotton crop. Rainfall amounts of 2 to 4 inches did cause damage to the state's crop, but the main thing it did was give us extremely wet field conditions,” he says.
The lingering humidity since the two hurricanes has prevented much of the Delta's cotton from drying sufficiently enough for harvest, and recent rains have caused further delays. Approximately 30 to 35 percent of the state's acreage had been harvested before the recent spat of rains.
According to McCarty, statewide yields are off significantly from the beginning of the season, and this year's overall average will likely now be below the Mississippi five-year average.
“USDA projected 2002 yields to average 759 pounds per acre in Mississippi, and I thought that number was low. We had an excellent chance of passing the government estimate, but our yields will be both below earlier estimates and below our state average of about 725 pounds per acre,” he says. “The recent weather is definitely going to lower quality. We're going to see a significant increase in light spot grades, and we're going to lose weight, yield and price.
“It's a tough situation. There's a lot of cotton left to be picked, and we just need to get back in the field as soon as we can. Re-growth is a tremendous problem. We've got to pick this crop, but it's going to cost more to do so.
“In this business, you've got to look for the bright spots in the business, and in this case the bright spot is that it could have been much worse,” McCarty says. “The expectation on the crop was much better than anyone thought, and this thing looked good. Unfortunately, this year and last year have been the worst years for harvest since 1984.”