Cotton acreage to plummet 50 percent in Miss.

Published 3:13 pm Friday, October 3, 2008

Cotton acreage in Mississippi is projected to plummet almost 50 percent from last year to a record-low level and agricultural experts say farmers will continue to turn away from the crop until market prices significantly improve.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest forecast predicts the state’s cotton acreage this year is 360,000 acres, down from 655,000 in 2007.

Ernie Flint, a farm extension agent for Attala and Carroll counties, says that while this is a bad year for cotton, 2009 is shaping up to be even worse.

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“We could drop to under 200,000 next year,” Flint said Wednesday. “If that happens, you’re going to have to hunt for a cotton field in this state.”

If the decline continues, the consequences will be far reaching, Flint said.

“You can’t keep all of that infrastructure viable in mothballs,” Flint says. “You’ve got big pieces of equipment that require maintenance.” Flint said cotton and Mississippi go well together because the crop “fits our weather and our soil and our people are cotton people and they will grow cotton given a chance to make a profit.”

A federal report in June showed U.S. cotton acreage hitting its lowest level since 1983, and states across the South have seen steep drops.

Louisiana’s cotton harvest is projected to fall to 285,000 acres in 2008, down from 330,000 in 2007, while the harvest in Arkansas is estimated to drop from 850,000 acres to 640,000 this year. Alabama’s cotton harvest is projected to fall from 385,000 acres in 2007 to 285,000 this year, and Tennessee is expected to see acreage drop from 510,000 in 2007 to 280,000 this year.

“The bottom line is the price of cotton has not kept up with the price of the grain crops like soybeans, wheat … and production costs are up on all crops because of seed, fertilizers and pesticide and equipment,” Flint said. “They (farmers) have huge investments in equipment … so some are still growing some cotton just to keep the system alive.”

Just five years ago, Mississippi farmers planted an estimated 1.12 million acres of cotton.

The cost of cotton production on average is about $700 an acre, according to Mississippi State University’s Extension Service. Fertilizer prices and other expenses can inflate the cost.

In 2001, cotton regained its place as king of crops in Mississippi when, for the first time in 37 years, farmers planted more cotton than soybeans. While soybeans, corn, and other crops have seen their prices double, triple, or even quadruple, Flint says cotton prices have remained virtually the same since 2003.

Mississippi is still projected to rank fourth in cotton acreage nationally this year, but Jerry Singleton, farm extension agent for Leflore and Washington counties in the Mississippi Delta, said more farmers are turning to other crops to pay the bills.

“Our guys have been growing cotton for years, but if there is no profit in it, you can’t grow it.” Singleton said. “It (cotton acreage) is probably a record low since we have been keeping records, going back to roughly the Civil War times.”