Originally created 11/21/00

Drought lowers cotton yields



BOSTWICK, Ga. - Thousands line the street for this town's Cotton Gin Festival, cheering as 85 bright-green tractors chug past. Santa is here, along with prancing horses, a smiling cotton festival queen in her 80s and crowds of children eating cotton candy.

The festive scene, a reminder of cotton's comeback as king of Georgia crops, stands in stark contrast to 2000 crop reports, which spell tough times for the Morgan County town and the rest of Georgia's cotton belt.

"We've had boom times," said Steve Brown, a South Georgia-based cotton specialist with the University of Georgia crop and soil sciences department. "Now, we're in hard times."

As harvest winds to a close, communities throughout Georgia that hailed the return of cotton in the early 1990s are blaming the three-year drought and September's heavy rains for another year of low yields and high production costs.

Three years of dry weather, some say, are doing what the boll weevil did until its government-sponsored eradication in 1991.

Just ask June Whittaker, whose family farm on nearby Prices Mill Road remained the site of unbroken cotton production during the past 150 years - until this year.

"This is the first year that (we) didn't plant cotton on our land," Ms. Whittaker said. Just about everyone in the 300-person town of Bostwick pitched in to run the 11th annual Cotton Gin Festival, but she said people are taking the poor harvest pretty hard.

The cotton woes, experts say, are testimony to the severity of the drought, because cotton is among the most drought-resistant of row crops.

About 200,000 acres of Georgia cotton were lost to dry weather this year, and the expected yield of 1.6 million bales in the state won't top yields in the dry years of 1998 and 1999, when pounds per acre fell below the critical 600-pound level needed by many to break even, according to Mr. Brown and other experts.

The final yield is expected to fall to the lowest point in more than 12 years, at close to 500 pounds per acre. The university's agriculture economists predict cash receipts for Georgia cotton will drop below $450 million, down from a 1996 high of $742 million.

That means further declines in the number of Georgia family farms. Growers who sought loans in recent years for land and new machines will remain in debt and under pressure to sell land to corporate farmers or subdivision developers, Mr. Brown said.

Closer to Athens, where about 5,500 acres of cotton are planted in the surrounding counties of Madison, Oconee, Hart and Elbert, the picture is the same.

"For the most part, it's been a really tough year," said David Spaid, a county extension agent in Elbert County. "Our yield potential was drastically affected. In some areas, farmers may actually be more in debt. I'm going to say there are some who will struggle to make interest payments."

But the picture isn't all bad. Farmers have been helped by the 1996 Freedom to Farm Bill, which loosened government controls on acreage plantings, and by voters' approval Nov. 7 of the state referendum abolishing the ad valorem tax on farm equipment, Mr. Brown said. The improvement in the Asian economy is also taken as a positive sign for American farmers.

By many accounts, banks and growers are going to hang in there and wait for better times.

"We're going to keep on doing as much as we've been doing," Ms. Whittaker said.

Nationwide, November reports show that U.S. textile mills struggled to compete with imports, and domestic consumption shrank by 100,000 bales, to 10 million. But the USDA placed the domestic crop at 17.51 million bales, slightly more than in October. Farmers saw increases in Mississippi, North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, which offset a 100,000-bale decrease in Texas and declines in Missouri and Georgia.