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Haunted by a bad year without rain

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POSTED: November 10, 2011 10:30 a.m.

This week starts the cotton harvest in Bryan County. The cotton is short this year, and the yield likely will be as disappointing as we have feared.
The lack of rain in the spring stunted the crop, and that limited how many fruiting positions were possible on a cotton plant. The harvesters have to keep the combine heads out of the dirt. With so many bolls set below harvest height and so few above, it might take a second glance to decide whether a field has been harvested.
The boll buggies may be on the road more than last year as they may have to carry lint from one field to another to make up a module. Please be patient with them. They, too, would rather be in the field than on the road.
It would be best if we could just get this season past us and hope for a better one next year, but it will not be that easy. This year will be haunting us for quite a while. A few fields got a fair amount of rain and may show a fair yield. But other fields just a couple miles down the road were replanted repeatedly, didn’t see a drop of rain and grew more weeds than cotton – and not many weeds at that.
If all the fields get decent rain next year, we could expect them all to make a decent yield. As long as the weather is perfect for the next several years, we will be fine. But what are the chances of that? The fact that weather and disease are so unpredictable is the reason we have crop insurance programs. That usually is a good thing, but this year it is a double-edged sword.
When there is a crop failure, like there is this year, a farmer is paid based on the historical average yield for that field. The abnormally low yields this year threaten to dramatically pull down the yield averages.
Let’s say a field has been averaging 840 pounds of cotton per acre, but this year was a bust and pulled down a farmer’s field average to 675 pounds. Even if he has 900 pounds of cotton in the field next year and suffers another loss, he only will be paid for 675 pounds. The loss from this year will haunt him until this year’s yield cycles off the books.
It takes a lot of good years to make up for one bad one. It is easy to see how an unfortunate string of bad years can depress yield averages so far that even crop insurance doesn’t help much.
Some of the cotton fields in Bryan County are so poor that it doesn’t make economic sense to put the harvester in the field. A grower would be financially better off to take a zero for this year’s harvest than pay $100 to harvest $75 worth of cotton.
Can he voluntarily take a zero? Nope. If he wants to be eligible for crop insurance next year, he has to harvest this year. The NFL has a rule against piling on, but it doesn’t translate to farmers.
So how does this affect you? By now, you may have noticed that the price of peanut products is spiking. Kraft Foods announced last week that its Planters line of peanut products would rise 40 percent. For those of you still asleep, this is not a case of corporate greed. The main reason for peanut prices going up is the record prices for cotton.
Flooding in Pakistan wiped out 700,000 acres of cotton (about 2 million bales) last year. China is the big player, producing 32 million bales last year but consuming 47 million bales, while the United States produced 18.4 million bales but only milled 3.5 million bales ourselves, the rest being exported – yep, mostly to China.
With cotton prices this high, hovering around $1 per pound for lint, anybody who could plant cotton did plant cotton. That translated into less acreage in peanuts.
The drought was the secondary culprit in further reducing peanut yields.
Peanuts are one of the highest non-animal sources of protein. The upcoming shortage in beef is putting price pressure on all other protein sources, including peanuts. The diversion of corn from feed to ethanol production raises the cost for beef, pork and poultry. It’s a supply and demand thing. So now the price of food is going up, but with a high cotton yield at least the price of cotton goods would have been ameliorated, in spite of the fact that cotton consumption has exceeded cotton supply each of the past five years.
With the droughts in Georgia and Texas and the floods in the Missouri/Mississippi basins, nobody is catching a break. Now the price of your shirts and jeans will be going up too, mostly because of an uneven distribution of rain.
Recovering from a severe drought is not like hitting the reset button on a video game. It will take row crop farmers a minimum of five years to get back to where they were in 2010, and it will take beef producers – those who survive – at least 10 years to return to 2010 levels. That does not include the increased demand from 10 more years of population growth.
So when you hear that farmers are praying for rain, take note. We want the rain not just so they can eat, but so you can, too.

Gardner is the University of Georgia extension agent for Bryan County and can be reached at dgardner@uga.edu.

 

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