Weather wipes out half of West Texas' cotton acres

8/17/2013 8:00 AM
By Associated Press

LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — West Texas cotton producer Doug Hlavaty has no plans to ditch his trade despite another tough growing season in the South Plains, replete with drought, hail and blowing sand.

Those weather conditions have robbed the world's largest contiguous cotton-growing patch of 50 percent of its acreage this year, according to recent estimates.

Preliminary numbers released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that cotton producers in the area — stretching from the Texas Panhandle at the Oklahoma border southward to the Midland-Odessa area — are forecast to harvest 1.86 million acres, a far cry from the 3.7 million acres they planted in the spring.

Texas is the nation's leading cotton-producing state and the South Plains typically produces two-thirds of the state total. But don't worry blue-jean and cotton-clothing enthusiasts, there's plenty of the fluffy fiber left to go around, thanks to carry-over from prior years' harvests worldwide.

The multi-year drought in these West Texas cotton-growing fields shows little sign of slowing, and this summer's hail storms have only served to damage what was growing.

Hlavaty abandoned about 1,000 acres of his dryland cotton about a couple of months ago. The water needed for Hlavaty's seed to germinate never fell, and there was little subsoil moisture to begin with. In fact, most of the acreage wiped out in the South Plains was dryland cotton.

The 59-year-old said he lost 40 percent of his 4,700 total planted cotton acres. Some of the crop in his irrigated fields was destroyed by earlier hail storms.

But most of the area's irrigated cotton fields are developing well, due in part to good rains during the past six weeks, though hail this week may have taken out some of those acres.

Hlavaty and many other producers see drought as a cyclical phenomenon and aren't overly worried.

"It'll start raining again," he said. "This is just cotton country. We'll get out of this drought."

Last year, the state produced 5 million bales, with 2.93 million bales coming from West Texas. This year, the region is forecast to harvest 2.57 million of the state's 4.1 million bales, a 12 percent drop from 2012. Nationally, 12.5 million bales are expected to be harvested, down 25 percent from 2012's production of 16.5 million bales.

It's been worse in the Lone Star State. 2011 was Texas' hottest summer and driest year ever, leading to growers bringing in their smallest crop since 1998 — 3.5 million bales. The South Plains produced just 1.8 million bales then, the area's smallest harvest since the early 1990s. About 64 percent of the acres planted in 2011 were abandoned.

Mark Kelley, a cotton specialist for Texas AgriLife Extension Service, says the average acre abandonment over the past dozen years has been about 25 percent.

In 2010, before the rains stopped falling and drought set in the following year in Texas, the rate was a mere 4 percent.

"That's very low," Kelley said. "And pretty odd for around here."

No matter what happens, the price of blue jeans and other items made from cotton won't be affected "significantly," said Shawn Wade, a spokesman for Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., which serves producers in a 42-county region.

"Those (consumer) impacts would be down the line before anything would start to happen," Wade said, noting there are carry-over cotton stocks from previous years.

Darren Hudson, the director of the Cotton Economic Research Institute at Texas Tech University, said China — the world's leading cotton producer — stores the fiber to try to balance internal political and economic pressures between the price it pays its growers and international competitiveness of the country's textile industry.

In the U.S., insurance allows cotton producers to get back what they put into planting a crop, said Jeremy Brown, a 32-year-old in Dawson County who's been farming just four years.

Leaving the business is the furthest thing from his mind.

"These last three years have been difficult but I've been able to weather them OK, and tried to be conservative," Brown said. "I love what I do, even with the challenges. It's all I ever wanted to do."


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