November 17, 2006
West Texas cotton farmer looks toward the future...
By Bobby Horecka
Kody Carson joined fellow growers in the world largest cotton patch in a brief sigh of relief as he brought in the first of his Lamb County crops this year.
Irrigated crop yields are better than most anticipated. Carson, who farms west of Plainview near Olton, projects his yield this season at just over 3.2 bales per acre.
Across the Panhandle, the crop won't touch the 5.6 million bales produced last year, but it was far better than most expected. Based on historical yields, Extension economist Jackie Smith said, 2006 will actually prove a strong crop showing.
But the gut punch comes in what it took to land at this point this year.
"The cost of growing a crop was unreal," said Carson, who in addition to farming his land near Olton, serves as Texas Farm Bureau's cotton advisory committee chairman. "You couldn't hardly afford to be a farmer this year between fuel and fertilizer costs."
Carson estimated the fuel costs of pumping water to the cropwhich he says is becoming scarce with depleting aquifersup from about $1,200 a month historically over the last six years to $3,800 a month in 2006. Fertilizer costs more than doubled.
"At least seeing the good yields helps put people in a more positive mood," Carson said. "But that definitely hasn't been the case for most of the year."
The 2006 growing season saw some of the hottest and driest times ever. Carson said when the rains finally came in August, they dumped an entire year's rainfall in his area over a month's span15 inches in just 30 daysand beat the thunder out of several fields with hail.
His brethren in South Texas weren't even that fortunate. Many of their typically robust dryland crops never even broke surface this year because of drought.
But it's communities, not crop raisers, feeling the pinch worst, Carson says, as any number of flailing fundraisers around his hometown will reveal.
The Texas cotton, lint and seed industries ranked second economically behind cattle and calves in 2005, generating almost $2 billion last year.
Nationally, upland cotton production totaled $5.3 billion for lint in 2005. Totals reached $6.2 billion when cottonseed was added to totals, the Agriculture Department reports.
But with water running short, growing world market competition and dying U.S. industry infrastructures, the days of the United States as cotton king could well be numbered, Carson said.
China already outranks the United States in production and consumption of cotton, and after traveling on fact finding missions to Mexico and Argentina, Carson says competition will be a major factor to watch.
At one time, America led the pack in technology, giving U.S. producers a distinct production advantage in the world marketplace. But that's no long the case, Carson says.
Information sharing has given farmers across the world the same access to seed and fertilizer that Americans enjoy, and in many places around the globe, farmers are already using the same global positioning satellite (GPS) and other high tech planting and production technologies that were once only found here.
With far cheaper labor pools and influx of American dollars for textile mills, most all of the processing has moved elsewhere as well. Much of the cotton produced in his area is already destined for plants in Mexico, he says.
Much of the region's crops once went to the American Cotton Growers Denim Mill in Littlefield, a cooperative-owned organization with some 29,000 farmers from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas that employs 650 people.
But as production contracts changed hands and cheaper facilities were opened just south of the border, Carson said many of the crops started heading elsewhere. He estimates that nearly 80 percent of that High Plains crop will be headed out of Texas.
"I'm not sure we are even able to compete in the world textile market anymore," he said. "We've closed our plants and shipped out nearly all of the equipment. What remains is nowhere near the scale it once was."
About the only advantage Americans still hold comes in transportation infrastructure, Carson says. Other countries simply aren't equipped with storage facilities or viable roads and rail lines to further expand their operations.
That's why Carson says he'll be watching closely any concessions made in the upcoming Farm Bill talks, which he's certain will become a hot political topic in coming weeks.
"The average person out there has no trouble understanding the need to change our dependence on foreign oil," he said.
"But we're a nation that's used to full grocery shelves and clothes racks," he added. "We haven't had to go without in this country since World War II."
The mentality such living affords makes it difficult for people to apply that same oil dependence reasoning to foods and fibers, Carson said.
"I'm certain we'll see a big push for farm program cuts and spending caps," he said.
While some farm bill cuts may be inevitable in light of Congressional spending crunches, Carson said he hopes those cuts are equally shared across the board.
Combine the politics with a hard growing year, and it's not difficult to see why Carson and fellow farmers aren't breathing easy this year.
"I think most people are concerned about where we're headed," he said. "You can handle the high costs and tough times for a year, but when it gets to be a trend, it's hard to stay optimistic. The long-term outlooks don't seem real positive right now."