Like many of his cotton-growing colleagues, Donald Heath is just glad to have 2002 in the rear-view mirror and ready to begin a new season. “We had a great crop at planting time (in 2002) and it went downhill from there,” said the Dover, N.C., producer, at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences recently. “We've had enough problems to think about. We're just looking forward to the next year.”

As producers gear up for a new year, they are looking at growing about the same amount of cotton as they did in 2002, while recovering from a tough growing season, says Keith Edmisten, North Carolina State University cotton specialist. “Some of these people got clobbered, however. Whether they can get financing for the coming season, I don't know.”

He's advising growers to pay close attention to variety selection in terms of the maturity, fiber and quality package in the coming year. “There are newer, earlier varieties coming out that have better quality than we've had, but they will be in limited supply. It forces producers to think about full-season varieties. If the planting season is early, full-season varieties won't be a concern, but if planting gets delayed it could become a problem.”

According to one ag economist, North Carolina cotton acreage could be down as much as 70,000 acres in 2003. Edmisten tends to believe “farmers probably want to plant the same amount of acreage in the coming year.” Peanuts will provide the wildcard for cotton this season.

As much as 30,000 to 40,000 acres could move from peanuts to cotton in North Carolina in 2003, Edmisten says. “Some of the areas that are not the higher peanut-yield areas are going to have to start looking more toward cotton. Peanuts in North Carolina are going to be confined to the higher-yield areas.”

In interviews with the Southeast Farm Press at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences, cotton producers in the upper Southeast said they are looking to plant about the same acreage as last year, while keeping a close eye on inputs and “working through the problems of a tough year.”

For Heath, a former Cotton Foundation/Farm Press High Cotton Award winner, he'll plant the same 1,400 acres of cotton he did last year.

Thomas Waller, in neighboring Jones County, N.C., plans to plant about 850 acres this coming season. Also a past High Cotton Award winner, Waller called 2002 “the weakest year we've ever had in cotton production.

“Coming off a tough year, you've got to be very conservative and make all your inputs count,” Waller says. He reports that the practice of no-till really showed itself positive under the wide swings of crop stress last season. He says variety selection will be important this year.

Up the road in Bath, N.C., Mike Godley's yields were off 50 percent from the previous year's record. “Just by virtue of contrast, it seems pretty bad. We are in an area east of U.S. 17 — rather than west of the highway — that got rain at the right times. We were relatively blessed.” For the coming year, he'll plant about 1,000 acres.

Down in South Carolina, Jim McColl is focused on “trying to get over last year.” He was still harvesting some cotton in January. He plans to plant around 1,000 acres in 2003. He's in his third year of strip-tillage.

In Virginia, Cecil Byrum of Zuni, who farms with his father, Roland, says he'll plant about 1,000 acres in 2003. He reports that the tough year will likely force a number of growers out of agriculture in the area.