Cotton harvest plummets

CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks Close-up of a cotton plant in farmer Kendall Devault’s field southeast of Farwell. Across the region, cotton yields this year are about half what they were one year ago, said Crag Rohrbach, general manager of the Parmer County Cotton Growers Co-Op.

Robin Fornoff

Farmers across the region say this fall’s cotton crop is bad because of the drought, but that’s not the worst news.

“The worst thing,” farmer Kendall Devault said Thursday standing alongside 200-acre cotton field outside Farwell, “the bad of it all is underground. There’s no deep moisture left. It’s just dry. So next year it’s going to be bad, too.”

Across eastern New Mexico and west Texas, farmers who’ve struggled with no rain trying to save their crop are just now beginning the cotton harvest. What they’re finding confirms some of their worst fears.

Devault and Parmer County Cotton Growers Co-Op General Manager Craig Rohrbach said because of the drought, cotton yields this year are half what they were just a year ago.

Devault said he averaged two and a half bales of cotton per acre last year. This year that average has plummeted to one bale an acre.

Rohrbach puts it another way: Last year, an estimated 60,000 acres were planted in cotton across the region, all of it harvested. “This year,” said Rohrbach, “we’ll be lucky to bring in 20,000 acres to harvest.

“It’s been atrocious,” said Rohrbach, a stiff wind whipping red dirt into a crimson haze across Devault’s field. Three of the farmer’s mammoth GPS-guided harvesting machines churn methodically through the dust down narrow rows of cotton, stripping plants of their soft white fiber.

Because of the drought, many farmers such as Devault, were forced to give up irrigating all of their crop, concentrating on smaller sections to save at least some of the harvest. Without rain, irrigation just couldn’t keep up with the need.

It means, said Devault, unless weather trends change drastically and the area gets a wet winter or spring, planting any new crop will be an exercise in futility.

“There’s no moisture down there to start with,” Devault said.

Fortunately, Rohrbach said, wholesale cotton prices remain high because of world demand. Not the record prices of $2 a pound or more last year. However, Rohrbach said cotton is selling for about $1 a pound. Three years ago and for many years prior, it averaged about 50 cents a pound.

Rohrbach’s co-op buys cotton from farmers across west Texas and in Curry, DeBaca, Roosevelt and Quay counties in New Mexico. But this year there won’t be any cotton from Quay County, he said.

“There’s nothing left,” Rohrbach said.

Farmers will make money, he said, but not as much with yields down so drastically.

In west Texas, frequently called the country’s biggest cotton field and the unofficial cotton capital of the U.S., Darren Hudson of the Cotton Research Institute at Texas Tech University in Lubbock was recently quoted by Bloomberg as saying, “It’s an unmitigated disaster.” He also told the news agency that production in West Texas could fall from the 10-year average of about 4.5 million bales to 1.5 million.

Devault said he and many other farmers across the region would find it tough this year to break even without federal crop insurance reimbursing them for the disastrous stubble left when they were forced to divert irrigation and save at least some of the cotton crop.

“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” he said.