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Can Mid-South cotton acres make a comeback?

Blame it on ethanol, plant bugs, high prices, lost demand, resistant pigweed, costs of production, weather or simply the headache, Mid-South farmers have been leaving cotton in droves over the last few years.

Is it just a bump in the road or is Mid-South cotton at a crossroads?

Since 2005, Arkansas cotton acres have dropped from 1.01 million acres to 320,000 acres; Mississippi from 1.2 million acres to 320,000 acres; Louisiana from 600,000 acres to 130,000 acres; Tennessee from 630,000 acres to 260,000 acres; and southeast Missouri, from 430,000 acres to 270,000 acres.

Other regions have also suffered from falling cotton acreage, but not to the extent that Mid-South has. In fact, Georgia planted 1.3 million acres of cotton in 2013, which is actually up from 1.2 million acres it planted in 2005. In 2005, Texas planted 5.8 million acres, about what it planted in 2013.

To come back to cotton in a meaningful way, Mid-South cotton will need the help of favorable combinations of price, yield and/or lower costs of production. But the industry may also need to reinvent itself somewhat. Many Mid-South producers say they are already changing from a predominantly cotton culture to one that includes a more diversified crop mix that helps them do a better job of managing resistance, improving soil health and reacting to market signals.

Mid-South cotton producers have always loved the challenge of producing cotton. But it hasn’t been as much fun recently, what with plant bugs and turns in the weather often foiling their best laid plans. Many farmers, especially younger ones, believe that grains are simply easier to grow, and prices too good to turn down.

One long time observer of the cotton industry in the Mid-South, O.A. Cleveland, professor emeritus at Mississippi State University, says despite the recent declines in acreage, there is still enough infrastructure in the Mid-South to sustain a cotton comeback. “We’ve lost about all the infrastructure we will. At the same time what is left is adequate to support another 25 percent to 50 percent increase in acreage. So I think we’re okay with infrastructure.”

Cleveland says Mid-South cotton producers need a price of around 80 cents to 85 cents to stay with the crop. “Below 80 cents, producers begin to struggle and shift more out of cotton. And it’s been difficult not to the take $5 to $7 corn price.”

Cleveland urges producers to be patient. “I think cotton will continue to be a very significant crop in the Mid-South. I actually think production will increase. Do not sell your cotton pickers. We’ll need them. We need to stay with cotton."

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