Lower Rio Grande Valley Growers May Plant the Smallest Crop in History

With a March 31 planting deadline looming, a severe drought and faltering economics may push Lower Rio Grande Valley cotton growers to plant one of the smallest crops on record, according to Texas AgriLife Extension Service personnel.

“We won’t know until after the planting deadline, but projections are that Valley growers will plant only about 60,000 acres of cotton this year,” said Dr. Luis Ribera, an AgriLife Extension agricultural economist in Weslaco.

That’s less than one-third of what is normally planted in the four-county southern tip of Texas, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency.

“If this drought continues, it’s going to be a nasty one,” he said, referring to this year’s cotton crop. “As it is, we’ll probably have one of the smallest crops ever, dating back to the 1920s when such records started being kept.”

Growers normally plant about 200,000 acres each of cotton and grain sorghum in South Texas, Ribera said. But since 2006, a severe drought year, acreage has steadily declined.

Growers planted 260,000 total acres in 2006, about 100,000 acres in 2007, and 92,000 acres last year, according to USDA records.

Several factors, not just drought, are driving down acreage this year, Ribera said.

Demand, Prices

“Cotton market prices are low, below 50 cents-per-pound, which is far below the break-even price here for growers,” he said. “And with the economy the way it is, the domestic and international demand for our cotton will probably decrease.”

The relatively low price of oil also weakens demand for U. S. cotton, he added.

“Synthetic fabrics that compete with cotton, like polyester, are made from oil derivatives so they will be cheaper to make, compared to previous years,” Ribera said.

The upside for Valley cotton growers who also plant grain sorghum, he added, is that grain prices are holding steady at about $6 per hundredweight, thanks to the national demand on grains for livestock feed and ethanol.

Trouble for Other Crops

But with scant rain since last summer, getting either crop started in South Texas could prove challenging, according to John Norman, a retired AgriLife Extension cotton integrated pest management entomologist and now a private consultant.

“We’ve got some deep soil moisture if we could get cotton roots down that far,” he said. “But the problem will be getting a stand, getting seeds to germinate in the dry upper levels of soil. Any light rains we’ve gotten are quickly dried up, in a matter of hours, by the strong winds we’ve been having.”

Indecision of whether and what to plant, coupled with a strong but dry cold front in early March has delayed planting this year, both Norman and Ribera agreed.

“Most planting of sorghum and cotton would be done by now,” Ribera said, “but not this year. Many are still waiting to see if it will rain and others are trying to decide what to plant, if at all.”

Prior to the acreage decline that began in 2006, the Rio Grande Valley’s cotton crop was worth about $70 million at the farm gate, with a statewide economic impact of $130 million, Ribera said.

Grain sorghum crops have traditionally been valued at $65 million, with a statewide impact of $120 million.

“Unless we get timely rains and the markets improve, I’m afraid we’re in for a dismal cotton and grain season,” Norman said.

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