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International pressures, property issues looming for Plains cotton producers

Cotton farmers on the Plains of West Texas have overcome all kinds of problems for more than five decades to sustain operations. Wind, hail and drought make up an unholy trinity of potential disasters.

But 21st Century cotton production faces those perils along with issues originating far from the farm gate. Ronnie Hopper, a Southern Plains cotton farmer, battles his own demons at home and takes an active role in trying to help the fraternity of farmers overcome other struggles, particularly domestic policy issues and international trade.

Hopper, who with his son, R.N. and wife, Nena, manages roughly 2,000 acres of cotton near Petersburg, characterizes farmers’ day-to-day economics and how governmental accountants, policymakers and others perceive the industry as “differences in realities.”

“Cotton built this West Texas country for agriculture, especially when irrigation emerged in the 1950s. And it’s still the keystone. But as it goes, we’ll go in a similar fashion,” Hopper said.

As a longstanding supporter and one-time officer, including president (2001 through 2003), of Plains Cotton Growers Inc., Hopper knows first-hand experience how difficult it is for farmers to convert collective policy concerns into responsive, adequate legislation.

He vividly recalls the months leading up to passage of the much-publicized Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, legislation he said was especially beneficial to West Texas farmers. Passage came after many lobbying trips to Washington, D.C., by PCG representatives.

He also sees how crucial PCG and other farming organizations will be as international disputes escalate. Much is at stake, more than ever before, he insists.

“These (international) issues are more complex than domestic policy agendas,” he said.

While he admits to being sympathetic to efforts of emerging countries to modernize, he does not “subscribe to the philosophy that it is up to me to stop growing cotton and give it over to growers in Africa and other nations.

“I don’t feel, as a cotton producer, that I have to leave the cotton industry so a third world country can grow,” he said. “There are some people in Washington who get a fuzzy feeling that textile production is increasing in foreign lands. There is no denying that trend. The only question is, ‘Will it continue?’”

Hopper takes the view that ultimately cotton acreage will probably decline overall, thanks to commodity pricing pressures, as well as a pricing structure that rewards quality cotton production versus pounds produced.

“The reality is that the grower is not adequately rewarded for quality. But we can’t sacrifice pounds for quality,” he said.

Hopper remains conditionally optimistic about West Texas’ future, however. “If cotton does well in the next few years, West Texas will be a major player, but if ….”

Hopper looks ahead to West Texas’ future and sees other issues that loom for cotton producers. Some concerns have little to do with Brazil or China, such as declining water supplies.

Gradually, but steadily, Hopper said, the once abundant water supply in the region, which remains in drought conditions, is declining, a problem with no clear solutions. Simultaneously, he sees a time when a vast water supply located northeast of Lubbock will be sought by already populous Texas cities continuing to grow.

When that happens it will be inevitable that local governments will turn their attention toward acquiring water sources from farmland. If and when that occurs, property rights issues – including fair land values – will emerge, he predicts.

While Texas landowners (since 1904) hold legal rights to groundwater supplies on their property under the Rule of Capture law, “laws will be changed for the benefit of the greater good,” he said.

Hopper also sees small evidence of another factor that may threaten Plains farmers: rural development.

“It hasn’t made its way here yet, but we began seeing signs of it, with recreational use, about two years ago,” he said.

It’s not a trend that surprises him. “It’s a fact that land will always be applied toward its best use. If cotton dwindles, what will the land here be best used for?”

That such property rights issues will have to be hashed out in courtrooms and in Congress while U.S. trade representatives wrangle with foreign countries like China that offer no or limited property rights to its farmers is an irony not lost on Hopper.

He said that discrepancy, however, seems not to be factored into some ideologues’ understanding of the industry’s dynamics.

“The right to private property is supremely important; it’s the bedrock of our nation. That’s the rub: anything that encumbers private property rights will affect us all,” he said.

Hopper said PCG must press harder than ever before to get issues related to the cotton farm addressed, despite obstacles in front of them. He cautioned though, that just as it has been in the past, not all issues gain attention because, “if they’re not on the table they won’t be discussed.”

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