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Floating modules, fickle weather, and the love affair with corn

Listening to cotton ginners and farmers talk about the 2006 crop year at the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show graphically illustrated just how drastically conditions can vary across the Delta in any given year.

“It was a banner year,” a Tennessee ginner reported at the annual meeting of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association, held in conjunction with the show. “We still don't know where that crop came from. We ginned some modules that certified 4 bales per acre — that's unheard of!”

In the Missouri Bootheel, growers harvested “the biggest crop ever,” but with a lot of weather problems. Louisiana's crop was the largest since 1996, with the second highest yield ever, and “it would've been better had not October rains caused crop losses and ginning problems.” Arkansas had a whopping 2.5 million bale crop.

Mississippi, conversely, seemed out of favor with the weather gods; a scorching drought over most of the early and mid-growing season hurt yields and sent irrigation bills zooming. “The amazing thing is that the crop turned out as well as it did under those circumstances,” one farmer said.

While Mississippi growers were coping with searing, unrelenting drought, many west Tennessee and Missouri growers were being treated to “rains every Friday, just like clockwork” and “some of the prettiest crops you could ever hope for.”

Rains were not so beneficial, however, when they brought deluges to many areas during the critical harvest period.

“We found that modules will float,” one ginner laughed. But he added wryly, “We also found that module trucks won't.”

For 2007, the two big topics of conversation at the show — for growers and ginners alike — were how much cotton acreage will decline in favor of corn, and what the long-term impact will be of new cotton harvesters.

Ginner and farmer estimates of cotton acreage declines this year ranged from a high of 35 percent for Louisiana, 30 percent or more for Mississippi, 20 percent for Tennessee, 15 percent for Arkansas, and 10 percent to 15 percent for the Missouri Bootheel.

“Everybody seems to be in love with corn right now,” a farmer said. “That's all you hear. Some growers are even talking about selling their pickers — they're convinced corn and biofuels are the wave of the future. But markets are fickle, and the ethanol boom could be sidetracked by any number of influences. Then there's aflatoxin…”

But, another countered: “It's hard to lead a cavalry charge if you're afraid to get on a horse.”

While corn's star may be on the ascendancy near term, cotton is expected to remain a key player in Sunbelt agriculture, judging by the new offerings of machinery and technology on display at the show, with interest centering on two new harvesters with onboard module builders (one now available, the other expected soon).

The machines hold potential for growers to drastically reduce labor, equipment, and energy costs related to harvesting. Ginners worry about how they'll handle two different, smaller module formats. “We time our operations in minutes and seconds,” one said. “This is going to be a real challenge for us. Two words sum it up: change and opportunity.”

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