How much of a toll did the early August heat and drought take on the cotton crops in the Delta, Southeast and Southwest?
That seems to be the $64 million question as farmers and the remainder of the cotton industry try to get a handle on the last crop of the 20th century or the first crop of the new millennium, depending on how you look at it.
Farmers attending the joint meeting of the American Cotton Producers and The Cotton Foundation in Raleigh, N.C., near the end of August said their crops were decidedly "a mixed bag," as one grower put it.
"Our crop conditions range all the way from a total disaster to an average crop in the northwest corner of the state," said Sam Spruell, producer from Mount Hope, Ala. "We have very little irrigated cotton in Alabama, so we think yields will be on the low side, particularly in the southeast."
Spruell said farmers in the southeast or Wiregrass region may have destroyed up to 60,000 acres of cotton because of the drought. "In the north part of the state, it looked like we were headed for an average crop, but, in the last two to three weeks, the heat and lack of rainfall have cut the yield by a minimum of 100 pounds per acre," he noted.
The high temperatures and dry conditions have resulted in states like Arkansas having two crops, said Thad Freeland, a grower from Tillar in southeast Arkansas.
"Our crop started off really well, but, in the last month to six weeks, we've had no rain and too much heat," he said. "The irrigated cotton appeared to be in good shape, but there's some thought that it may be going backwards." (About 50 percent of the state's acreage can be irrigated.)
In contrast, the crops in Arizona and California could produce above average yields, American Cotton Producer representatives from those states said.
"We have had nearly perfect growing conditions," said Don Cameron, a producer from Helm, Calif. "We are about two weeks ahead of schedule in much of the state, and some growers began harvesting Labor Day weekend."
"Our crop is kind of a mixed bag," said grower Chuck Coley of Vienna, Ga. "The irrigated cotton looks good or at least better than last year. USDA is estimating our state average at 620 pounds per acre. We have some cotton in the first week of bloom and some ready to be defoliated, so it's difficult to say how it will turn out."
After starting out with relatively good moisture, Louisiana growers have endured "very dry" conditions in the last several weeks, said producer Jay Hardwick of Newellton. "The irrigated cotton looks good, but we couldn't keep enough water on it."
Growers began defoliating their crops in mid-August, he said, and some were estimating yields of 300 to 400 pounds per acre in their dryland cotton.
"Mississippi is almost exactly like Arkansas and Louisiana," said Mike Sturdivant of Greenwood. "We're very dry. The irrigated cotton looks good, but we're not sure where it stands. The dry-land is getting worse every day."
USDA has estimated Mississippi's statewide average yield at 737 pounds per acre. "Woods (Eastland, president of Staplcotn Cooperative) has estimated the crop at less than 700 pounds per acre. But, it's probably not as good as we think."
Missouri cotton producers have benefited from some of the rains that have swept across the Midwest. But, the rains have also brought more insects for growers to battle, said Charles Parker of Senath.
"We've had good moisture, and we have a fairly high percentage of irrigated cotton," said Parker. "The irrigated cotton looks good, and the dryland appears to be average. But, we've had some of the worst insect pressure we have ever seen. So, it has been an expensive crop."
West Tennessee growers have a better crop than last year, said Ross Via of Bells, Tenn. "I think our quality is better than last year. We've had some of the same conditions that they've had elsewhere in the Mid-South. Some of our growers are way too wet and some are way too dry and way too hot.
"That's also put us ahead of schedule, and some growers were expected to begin defoliating this week."
Abundant moisture conditions along the East Coast have helped the outlook of cotton growers in Virginia, North Carolina and the northern portion of South Carolina, growers said.
"Going south on I-95, the crop is very poor," said Frank Rogers of Bennettsville, S.C. "The crop gets much better the farther north you go. We've had moderate insect pressure, and most of the Bt cotton has had to be sprayed for stink bugs."
North Carolina appears to be on target for one its best crops in years, said David Grant of Garysburg.
"We have 1.3 million bales forecast, and it's possible. But I would remind you that we had 1.3 million bales fore-cast on Sept. 1 last year and picked 800,000 (after Hurricane Floyd dumped 20 to 30 inches of rain on the state)."
"We've had rain pretty much when we needed it," said Cecil Byrum of Windsor, Va. "The question has been if we would have enough heat to mature the crop."
In the Southwest, growers in New Mexico are looking forward to one of their better crops.
"Like Arizona and California, we're about two weeks ahead of schedule," said Dwight Mennefee of Lake Arthur. "We're working on boll weevil eradication, and everything seems to be going smoothly."
As with their neighbors to the east and south, hot, dry conditions have hammered Oklahoma growers. "About 40,000 acres in the Altus Irrigation District could produce more than two bales to the acre," said Danny Davis of Elk City.
"The rest of the state ranges from 1.25 to 1.5 bales for the irrigated down to as low as 200 pounds per acre for dryland. We probably will have up to 45,000 acres abandoned because of the heat and dry weather."
Texas growers certified 6.5 million acres of cotton, but have already abandoned 10 percent of that total, said Mark Williams, a producer from Farwell.
"You've all seen the news accounts about Texas, but I don't think I have ever seen it as hot and dry as it's been the last few weeks," he said. "At the end of July, the irrigated crop on the High Plains appeared to be one of the best ever. Since then, I don't think I've ever seen a crop go downhill so fast."
Some High Plains growers have had to spray for beet armyworms up to three times, he said, "and now loopers are coming in. We have never had to spray for loopers."