Only a fraction of the cotton planted in Texas last year was actually harvested.
Drought was the main culprit. Dry, scorching conditions meant that many farmers had to abandon the acres they’d planted months before. That often means losing money on that year’s crop.
The 2023 cotton season is already shaping up to be a different story than last year’s, though. It will be much smaller, for one. A recent survey from the National Cotton Council showed that Texas farmers plan to plant 20% less cotton than in 2022.
Three members of the cotton industry spoke to the Texas Standard about the industry’s outlook: Bryce Wilde, a farmer from Lyford, Guyle Roberson, CEO of Texas Producers Cooperative, and John Robinson, professor of agricultural economics and extension cotton specialist at Texas A&M University.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Let’s start with you, professor – from a big-picture perspective, why are Texas farmers going to plant so much less cotton this year than last year? Could you say a little bit more about just how big the loss was?
John Robinson: In 2022, we did have record abandonment. Also last year, the agricultural sector was caught in the throes of high prices for inputs, particularly fertilizer and some other key herbicide inputs. And that’s coupled with traded seeds that are already expensive. You know, they do good things, but they cost a lot, and machinery that costs a lot – a lot of that came to a head last year. And this year, the cutback is partly in response to a continuation of those things, although not as severe. Fertilizer prices are down from their highs, but they’re still expensive. And we’re under dry conditions now, but not as bad as last year. The key thing is that corn prices, grain prices, soybean prices are better than cotton, belt-wide.
Guyle, as a head of a co-op in the Panhandle, farmers bring you their cotton from the fields to get processed. So you’re working with a number of different producers from around the region, as I understand it. Can you give us a sense of what they went through last year?
Guyle Roberson: About 74% of that was abandoned. And, like Professor Robinson said, the cost was extremely high. And you find in that drought, it just put everybody in a bind there. And, you know, on a financial decision making, a lot of that was abandoned, and it couldn’t even go some back up with a secondary crop, you know, because of extreme drought. So it pushed them in a corner.
Well, now, Guyle, it’s hard not to imagine the ripple effects – I mean, how did that affect your business at the co-op?
We probably ended up with about 27% to 28% of our norm. So you can imagine taking any business and taking that much away from that – what it’s going to do to your bottom line.
Bryce, you raise cotton in the Rio Grande Valley, which is one of the few areas of the state where producers had a decent year in 2022. What are you planning on this year?
Bryce Wilde: You’re right, yeah, we had a fantastic year last year. We were fortunate to get just timely rains. This year we are scaling back. That 20% number is not too far off from kind of what we’re thinking; we’re actually starting to plant tomorrow. So these decisions have already been made for us. But yeah, I mean, for those reasons Dr. Roberson gave, you know, corn and grain and soybeans, all those prices are up. And so it kind of makes the decision a little bit easier in that sense. And we’ve got low water usage down here on the irrigated land. So that’s going to change a lot of acres from from cotton, which is a heavy water-use crop on irrigated ground, to probably some sorghum or milo.
What are you actually planting instead of cotton? What goes in place of it?
Bryce Wilde: We’re just extending our acres for sorghum, and then a little bit more corn. We’ve got a decent market down here into Mexico. So some of those acres that was cotton are going to be transitioned to that.
Professor, do you see what’s happening here as having staying power, where cotton acres in Texas steadily decline because of the forces we’ve been talking about?
John Robinson: No, not really. To the extent that this year’s influences are crop-driven, you know, crop markets go up and down – the grains are under the influence of the war in Ukraine and Russia; that stuff is going to eventually pass, and commodity markets are going to be driven by supply and demand. So cotton prices will be high one day relative to the other stuff ,and it’ll swing back and forth. That’s the ongoing pattern.
Guyle, how much confidence do you have in that pendulum effect? You know, one year’s good, one year’s bad. How long have you been in this business, and what have you noticed?
Guyle Roberson: Well, I started in the business in 2008, and for our region, you know, I guess you could say cotton is still a king. And even though there’s going to be ups and downs, I believe that it’s a mainstay for us. It will be down some years; some years it’s going to be back up. I believe it’s short term – yes, it’s going to change some things, change some ideas. But long term, it will come back.
Well, what do you make, then, of concerns that cotton is a kind of a harbinger for the impact of climate change on the broader economy, on consumer prices?
John Robinson: There’s a lot of sandy ground in southern Illinois that would be great cotton land. It all depends on just where the shifts are. It hurts crops in some places; it’ll benefit crops in other places. I wouldn’t mind owning land in Saskatchewan, you know, if global warming is really real.
But what if you own land in Texas and that’s what pays the bills and puts food on the table?
John Robinson: With some land cotton will fare better than alternatives – than grain crops – on droughty, dry, hotter, drier kind of ground. I’ll defer to the grower on the call to really answer that question – but it varies where you are, even within Texas.
Bryce, what do you think?
Bryce Wilde: From our farm, I don’t see it being a canary in the coal mine as far as it going away. We love cotton, we’re good at it, we enjoy it. And it does, I guess, go through those drought year conditions a lot better than most. It just depends on where you put it in your rotation. Some guys might have to have a little heavier rotation than say, the cotton on cotton ground, you know that real taproot of a plant like cotton, it really sucks it dry. And so coming out of a fallow situation it’s got potential or behind grain it’s got potential too on our farm. So it’s a good rotation for where we are.
If fewer farmers are in fact planting cotton this year in Texas, what’s the larger effect on consumers? Professor, maybe you have a sense of that?
John Robinson: If the price of cotton goes from where it is now, in the mid to low $0.80 range, to a dollar – there may be a pound of cotton in the shirt that I’m wearing, so the increase in lint doesn’t really drive the variations in the cost of my shirt. It would be much, much more the transportation, the branding, retail things, labor things – things in the broader economy are going to affect the price of apparel more than than the underlying fiber.