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Hurricanes take toll on cotton, mostly in Texas

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Farmers who were expecting to see the best cotton crop in more than a decade are devastated after Hurricane Harvey swept through the southern United States.

Total losses for the nation’s cotton crop will be an estimated 400,000-500,000 bales, with another 300,000-400,000 whose quality might be impaired. The total impact to the nation’s supply will not be huge, as the USDA projected this year’s crop to come in at 20.5 million bales – the highest in 11 years – but the impact to the individual farmer could be overwhelming.

“This might really pose some problems to the individual producer,” said Dr. Gaylon Morgan, state extension cotton specialist at Texas A&M. “Some of the producers are making the decision as to whether or not to get back in the field and see what they can salvage.”

In Texas, the nation’s largest cotton state, 13 of the 50 counties declared disaster areas by Gov. Greg Abbott are cotton producing. While the cotton-growing area most affected by hurricane devastation were in the upper Texas coast, farmers all the way to Tennessee are could feel the impact.

In other growing states such as Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana, 20-40 percent of the crop “bolls” – pods that contain the cotton fibers – have started to open. Excessive rainfall from the remnants of Harvey put these crops in danger of a downgraded quality.

This year’s cotton crop was on par for record highs after a poor 2016 crop forced some farmers to refinance loans to keep operations afloat. The 20.5 million-bale estimate by the USDA would have been a 3.4 million-bale advantage over last year, representing more than a 20 percent increase.

Overseas sales for the 2016-17 crop were projected at 14.9 million bales, up 62 percent from the previous year and the second highest volume since 2005. According to USDA August numbers prior to Harvey, Texas was expecting a giant cotton crop of 8.8 million bales (6.6 million planted acres).

As the storm approached, many growers were prompted to prematurely pick cotton to minimize damage, but those sitting in modules did not evade the storm’s wrath. While gusts of up to 145-mph scattered cotton across the countryside, the damage to those storage modules could be equally pricey as to that cotton lost in the fields.

With modules potentially valued in the thousands of dollars, modules which had the tarps torn off and those which are sitting in standing water of up to 4 feet, will have heavy setbacks to the quality.

Though insurance will cover some of the losses, Morgan said it will not be enough to cover all. “Some portion of the farmers had hurricane insurance, but that has a ceiling like all insurance, so hopefully those who have harvested will be protected by that insurance,” he said. “Crop insurance is based on pound, and these guys are obviously going to lose quality. The farmers who still had crops in the field are going to be even worse off.”

Grower policies are priced early in the year and are based on historic yields. Most policies are only insured at 60-70 percent and with the expected banner year, the crop which would have been harvested and sold would have brought a higher price than what insurance will pay.

Morgan says that some producers are weighing the benefits of trying to save their crop. “One big factor is how much cotton was in modules and can be ginned. This all depends on the level of saturation. If it’s able to be ginned, then what is that going to do to the quality? We know it’s going to drop the quality, the question is by how much.”

Cotton growers in Texas aren’t the only ones to feel the impact from a monster storm. Farmers in the Southeast experienced damage from the remnants of Hurricane Irma, which shattered the global record for a cyclone to maintain 185-mph winds for such a long duration, at 33 hours. Super Typhoon Haiyan previously set the record in 2013 when it maintained winds at that level for 24 hours.

However, cotton growers in that region did not suffer nearly as much damage as those in the Lone Star State, despite bolls being measured at 50 percent open in the last USDA crop progress report. After the storm had passed, cotton futures fell sharply – down 2.5 percent – as casualties did not prove as painful as some might have feared.

“If it’s dry and the sun’s out, then things should recover pretty well,” said Dale Molher, a commodity specialist and senior meteorologist with AccuWeather. “They’re not getting day-after-day cloudy and wet weather.

“Right now, they’re getting sun and little to no rain. I think there would be some pretty good recovery if there were some problems, but I have a feeling that it’s not a worse-case scenario.”

While the Texas producers suffered withering losses – an estimated $150 million – from what would have been a banner year, Molher believes any damage to the Southeast will not be an extreme setback to the region as a whole.

“It was looking as an above-average year for that part of the country. Irma will probably knock it back a little bit to average. Considering everything, I don’t think that Irma was as bad as it could have been,” he explained.