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Drought takes toll on cotton harvests

By Nancy Glasscock
nglasscock@decaturdaily.com · 340-2443

A dry March, an Easter freeze and record-breaking summer temperatures left area cotton growers with poor fall harvests, local gin owners said.

Meteorologists say cotton in decent shape in July deteriorated rapidly with little rain and stretches of temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. After a second consecutive year of poor cotton harvests, gin owners say some growers may leave the business for an alternative such as grain, which is cheaper to grow.

Lawrence County cotton gin owners started ginning cotton recently, and say they’re seeing yields of about 350 to 400 pounds an acre, down from about 700 pounds during a normal season.

Hillsboro Gin owner Roger Felkins said this year’s cotton crop is the worst he has seen in 25 years.

“Normally, this time of year, we see really pretty white cotton, and we’re seeing a dingy color,” Felkins said. “I think the color is off because of the extra leaf content and because the cotton plants were short to the ground.”

Felkins said Hillsboro started ginning cotton late last month. As of last week, Hillsboro ginned about 1,300 bales and was operating only one eight-hour shift. Felkins said the gin normally runs 24 hours a day this time of year.

In 2006, Hillsboro ginned 18,500 bales, he said. Felkins said he expects to process about 10,000 fewer bales this year because of the drought. Felkins said the most recent good year for cotton was 2004, when Hillsboro ginned about 32,500 bales.

Minor relief

Though rain in mid-September from a tropical system provided minor relief to areas west of Decatur and Athens, a state-declared drought emergency continues for most of the state. Meteorologists expect only limited improvements in drought conditions through December.

Felkins said farmers will be forced to plant less if the drought continues into spring. Cotton growers may switch to grain rather than risk another poor harvest, but a lingering drought could make growing anything difficult, he said.

The typical producer spent about $400 an acre to grow cotton this year, Felkins said.

“If farmers don’t get rain this winter and this spring, they’ll be reluctant to plant a lot of items that require more water,” he said. “They can get by with some, but they’re not going to put a lot of money into it.”

Yeager Gin Co. owner Mark Yeager said he expects to gin about half the bales he did last year, and that’s if he’s lucky.

“We’re hoping for 3,000 to 2,500,” he said.

Last year, Yeager Gin processed about 6,000 bales, Yeager said.

“We’ve ginned about 500 so far, and last year wasn’t a very good year either,” he said.

Because this year’s cotton crop is so poor, some growers haven’t started harvesting, Servico Gin President Bobby Greene said.

“It’s going to be half a crop, and I don’t know what we’re going to gin either,” he said. All 67 counties have been declared natural disaster areas by the federal government because of the drought.

The declaration makes farmers eligible for low-interest emergency loans from the Farm Service Agency if eligibility requirements are met.

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