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Drought to wipe out most of Texas’ cotton crop

 Cotton fields near the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville in 2018.
Julia Reihs
Cotton fields near the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville in 2018.

The Rio Grande Valley is the only region where producers expect to harvest what they planted.

The historic drought has ruined cotton across Texas. The state’s growers expect to harvest less than half the cotton they did last year, according to a recent forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many growers are already thinking about next year’s crop, having declared this one a bust.

Benjamin McKnight, state cotton specialist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, spoke to the Texas Standard about this year’s crop, and the future of cotton in a drier Texas.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Is there any part of the state where cotton growers have had some success this year, or has the drought pretty much wiped out crops statewide? 

Benjamin McKnight: Well, actually, there is one region in particular that has not seen a lot of the drought-related issues that our other cotton producers across the state have seen, and that area is the Lower Rio Grande Valley. That geography was fortunate to catch some some timely rains at just the right time, and just overall the Lower Rio Grande Valley has not been near as dry as some of the other parts of the state. And so our growers are seeing quite a bit of success in the crop this year in that geography.

That’s actually the first planted area of the state, it being the southernmost part of the state, and so we’re actually right in the middle of harvesting. And so some of the yield reports I’ve heard from the Lower Rio Grande Valley are quite good given the the circumstances across the broader state.

What about those cotton growers in other parts of the state? Many have just had to declare a loss on this year’s crop; what can you expect to get back if you file a crop insurance claim? 

Well, it’s really going to be a mixed bag depending on the region. For instance, in the coastal bend and that area of production near Corpus Christi, growers in that region saw widespread failure – frankly, failed to see any emergence from the planted seed earlier this year, and so a tremendous amount of acreage in that geography just never did emerge. Growers that were fortunate enough to get a stand in some of the drier geographies across the state have been struggling throughout the year. Some have been fortunate to catch timely rainfalls at just the right time, and in a lot of cases those were isolated events. And so you may have a grower that is going to be yielding a little bit better than some of his neighbors; in a lot of cases that may have depended on just an isolated rainfall.

Let’s turn our attention from the growers to the consumers. As you think about the global situation on cotton production, are consumers going to feel the results of this year’s harvest one way or another? 

I would anticipate that to be the case – maybe not immediately, but further in the future.

Are we talking about higher prices? 

Perhaps, yeah, that that very well could be some of the impacts that the folks are going to see just based on what’s happened with the overall year this year in cotton production here in the state.

Climatologists are expecting that Texas will get even hotter and drier in the years ahead. Given that, and the farmers’ experience this summer, what is the thinking when it comes to developing perhaps more drought-tolerant strains of cotton? Is that a thing?

Absolutely it is, yes. There’s a lot of activity moving towards, you know, developing crops that better utilize water. That’s always been – or at least in the past few decades that has been – one of the main concerns for new variety development. For instance, you know, my program in College Station, we’re very heavily invested into evaluating these new varieties as they’re developed. And so, as we move forward, I would anticipate that that’s going to be a main concern of crop variety development, is to try to get some of these varieties that are that are better utilizers of less water.

Could these be on the market within a year or two, or are we talking about further down in the future?

Well, usually it takes several years from the initiation of a variety being developed until that variety is commercialized. So we really don’t have a clear-cut answer for that, but I can tell you that it does take time to develop these varieties.

Is it possible, given the changes in climate, that the country’s cotton-growing belt might migrate along with these weather patterns that we’re seeing?

Well, I can tell you the cotton growers in Texas are very resilient, and they have, in a lot of cases, displayed an exceptional ability to be flexible. You know, drought isn’t necessarily a new occurrence in Texas. It’s something that we’ve been dealing with for several years, since the conception of cotton being produced here in the States. And so our growers are very resourceful individuals. They’re very resilient, and they’re very flexible. And so I would anticipate our cotton producers here in the state of Texas are going to remain flexible, and they’re going to roll with the punches and continue to produce cotton here in the States.

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Michael Marks