Jonathan Krenek drives around his farm in Egypt, a small town about 60 miles southwest of Houston. He grows all kinds of crops there: soybeans, pecans, corn, rice … and cotton. Cotton is king, his staple crop. Farmers like him are the reason that Texas typically produces 40 percent of the country’s cotton — more than any other state. He sits in the truck, looking at one of his fields.
“This is the first time I’ve seen this cotton since the storm, and it’s sitting in water,” Krenek says. “That right there; I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s pretty sickening.”
Like most of southeast Texas, Hurricane Harvey hit Egypt with about a foot of rain. Farmers in other areas affected by the storm already harvested their cotton. But many with farms between Victoria and Houston didn’t. It wasn’t quite ready for harvest, or there just wasn’t enough notice to get it out of the ground before the rains came, which means that the thousands of acres that were once filled with clean, fluffy fiber are now a mess.
“It’s strung out, still hanging in the burr,” Krenek says. “It’s strung out, sitting in the water. There’s probably six inches of water there. You can see the cotton in the water. And we’re predicted for another 10 inches of rain in the next two days.”
Krenek planted 1,000 acres of cotton this year. He was only able to harvest 50 acres before the storm hit. The cotton in the other 950 acres is dirty and droopy, weighed down under the moisture collecting in the fiber.
“You can squeeze water out of it, sure enough,” Krenek says.
Its seeds, which are embedded in the cotton lint, are starting to sprout, which is a problem. It’s one of the many problems, actually, because farmers sell the seeds to pay for their cotton to be processed.
John Robinson is a cotton economics expert at Texas A&M University, and says what has happened because of Hurricane Harvey is a disaster.
“For the growers at the farm level this is a disaster. It’s just one way or another, it’s a disaster at the farm level to be hammered like this,” Robinson says.
That’s especially true this year. Many cotton farmers in the area also lost their crop last year. There wasn’t a hurricane, but intermittent rains right before harvest ruined thousands of acres. They took a big financial hit as a result, and were depending on the 2017 crop to help make up for that.
Before the hurricane, it looked as if that was going to happen. David Williams owns the Violet Gin and Grain Company near Corpus Christi. His grandfather bought the gin in 1923, and he started working there when he was about six. In other words, he knows the cotton business.
“I’ve never seen a crop like this,” Williams says. “It’s just unbelievable.”
Krenek says he was going to get a good price for his bumper crop, too: 75 cents a pound, which is much better than in recent years when he made closer to 60 cents a pound. Now, he and his neighbors may be forced to claim a total loss on their crop insurance. Insurance for cotton is calculated by looking at crop values from the past five years, which makes this loss especially bad. Insurance companies won’t take into account that this year’s crop was extraordinarily prolific. If farmers have to take a total loss, they’ll recoup between 50 and 85 percent of what they made the past five years. It won’t come close to what they would have made by harvesting the cotton.
“I’m projecting a quarter-million-dollars in loss. From what the cotton was worth in the field, the yield we had and the price I had it sold at, to what I’m guaranteed in insurance, I will lose 250,000 thousand dollars,” Krenek says.
For Krenek and his neighbors, this was supposed to be a year to get back on track financially after last year’s rains. Instead, it’s two straight years of taking a loss.
Jeff Nunley, the executive director of the South Texas Cotton and Grain Association, estimates that Hurricane Harvey could collectively cost cotton farmers over $100 million. That’s a lot of money, but the impact may not go far past the farm gate.
“Frankly that doesn’t mean that much for the market. At the aggregate level that might change the futures price in New York by a penny. It won’t really affect other cotton farmers or cotton traders or merchants, and it certainly won’t affect the retail price of Levi’s,” Robinson says.
But it will affect Krenek and others in the region. He’s been farming since 2003, right after he graduated from A&M. He grew up here, and while the hurricane has taken a financial and emotional toll, he also knows that this is part of the business.
“I mean I’ve been farming…this is my 14th season. And I guess only two of them got washed away. It’s just, roll with the punches, do it all again next year,” Krenek says.
For the Texas cotton farmer, that’s pretty much all you can do. Hurricane, hailstorm, or bumper crop, you never know what next year holds; you only know that you’ll try again.