Drought, dust darken large cotton patch
Dry heat and high winds have seared The Texas Panhandle, host to the world's second largest contiguous cotton patch after India.
Tue, Jun 21, 2011 at 04:23 PM
COTTON: The region produced more than 5.5 million cotton bales in 2010 — more than a quarter of U.S. cotton production that year. This year, experts expect a big decline in output due to the drought. (Photo: Gabriella Aguilar/Flickr)
LUBBOCK, Texas - Punishing temperatures of more than 100 degrees left Wesley Butchey's 2,000 acres of West Texas cotton looking as if they had been zapped in a microwave.
Mother Nature followed up one afternoon with a 45-minute, 60-mile-per hour dust storm, battering tender green plants peeking out of the roasted soil.
"That next morning, it was black — just sandblasted," Butchey said of his crop.
Dry heat and high winds have seared The Texas Panhandle, host to the world's second largest contiguous cotton patch after India, a sea of roughly 4 million acres of fluffy white fiber in the best seasons.
"You feel like there's no relief in sight," said Butchey, a veteran farmer with 54 years of experience "You try to remain optimistic, or we'd never go out in the field."
The region produced more than 5.5 million bales in 2010 — more than a quarter of U.S. cotton production that year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This year, experts expect a big decline in output due to the drought.
"The implications are that it's going to be pushing the worst extreme, the historical worst, and I'm not challenging that at all," said John Robinson, a Texas A&M University professor and cotton economics specialist.
Domestic markets will get their first objective reports in August, when U.S. Department of Agriculture agents begin studying crops in the fields across West Texas, Robinson said.
Cotton has thrived in the dry, sunny fields of West Texas, where summer often delivers just enough rainfall to prod the crop along. A knee-high forest of short, green cotton plants typically begins to carpet the region in late May and June.
But drought already delivered $1.5 billion in losses before cotton plants perked up this season in West Texas. Hot, dry and windy weather starved pasture for livestock, winter wheat and other crops across rural Texas during the state's driest eight-month period on record.
Since they began assessing damage last week, crop insurance agents for ARMTech Insurance Services, Inc. had seen no acreage without expensive irrigation systems that have produced anything, claims supervisor Steven Fortenberry said.
More than half the region's farmers rely on irrigation systems for their crops, but even they will struggle in July without help from rain, he said.
"They might be in worse shape than the dry-land guys right now," Fortenberry said. "They put so much money into it already, and their wells aren't able to keep up with no relief."
Despite the expected drop in U.S. cotton production, farmers who do weather the summer have no guarantee of high prices, he said.
A U.S. cotton shortage would not mean much in the face of big crops in India, China and Brazil, Robinson said.
"They'll use up their supplies first, and whatever we harvest is going to go sit in a warehouse," Robinson said.
(Editing by Karen Brooks, Greg McCune and David Gregorio)
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