A 52-percent increase in cotton acreage in the Rio Grande Valley this year has paid off for farmers. But, as is typical in the tough business of farming, some growers did better than others.
“The crop has been harvested now,” Hidalgo County AgriLife Extension Agent Brad Cowen said. “Yields are kind of scattered this year. It was a really good year for some and not so good for others.”
Valley farmers planted 190,279 acres in cotton, up from 125,917 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cotton acreage was up throughout Texas with 6.62 million acres compared to 5.67 million in 2016. Texas acreage represented about half of the cotton grown in the United States. Nationwide, a little more than 12 million acres were devoted to cotton this year.
Farmers dedicated more land to cotton this year for a couple of reasons. Cotton prices last year were good and futures markets increased going into the planting season, according to USDA data. Compared with weaker prices for grain sorghum and corn, cotton presented a good option for growers.
“We also had some issues with grain sorghum with the sugarcane aphid,” Cowen said. The pest has started to attack Valley sorghum crops in recent years and farmers have to pay more to combat the infestation with insecticides. “It has increased the prices of growing sorghum.”
It’s no secret that rain can make or break a farmer. Not enough rain, or rain at the wrong times, can reduce yields. This year that life-sustaining precipitation was a mixed bag. “Cotton is one of our more drought-tolerant crops, but even cotton has got to have some rain,” Cowen said.
“We went into the planting season with enough deep moisture in the soil,” he said. “A lot of the rain we did get was kind of streaky. It came in odd patterns where you would get some rainfall in an area and just a few miles away you didn’t get any. The guys who got rain did good, those who didn’t get rain didn’t do so good.”
Deciding what to plant is not an easy financial decision for farmers, who closely monitor sometimes volatile markets as a guidepost on what to grow. Over the last five years USDA data shows cotton was selling for 84.4 cents per pound in August 2012. In March 2014 future prices hit a high of 96.9 cents, but dropped significantly by harvest time to 73.4 cents. Prices were increasing as the 2017 planting season started and hit 88.6 cents by May. At the end of September the futures markets pegged the price at 68.2 cents with spot prices in the range of 67 cents being reported.
Prices continue to fluctuate week-to-week as the cotton crop is being ginned. One possible influence on prices presents yet another good news, bad news farming scenario. Hurricane Harvey dumped huge amounts of rain throughout southeast Texas and did considerable damage to that region’s cotton yield. A reduction in the supply of cotton conceivably could spur an increase in prices if the demand is strong enough.
“There were significant cotton losses due to Hurricane Harvey,” Cowen said. “They got hit pretty hard up there. They still had a lot of cotton in the fields and there was a lot of damage.”
No matter the outcome, cotton will continue as a driving agricultural force in South Texas, Cowen said. “Cotton is a big part of the local economy. It’s a good crop. It puts a lot of dollars into our communities.”