The feel of cotton

Florence farmer Guy Rankin checks on his cotton crop.

FLORENCE — This year’s weak monsoon season was disappointing to some people, but not cotton farmers. A heavy monsoon season is usually bad for cotton.

“Cotton likes it hot and dry,” Florence farmer Guy Rankin said. Humidity alone causes the plants to drop fruit. Florence farmer Dennis Bagnall agreed, “If we don’t have a monsoon, the humidity doesn’t come in and put a heat stress on the plant.”

Heavy rains just exacerbate the problem. “Violent thunderstorms, with wind and hail, that can be real bad. Hailstorms can really wipe out the cotton. In fact, we get hail insurance every year,” Rankin said. If abundant rain makes the plants grow too fast, it creates a “buggy whip” effect of tall plants with no fruit on top. “So that’s a negative effect of getting too much rain at one time, or at the wrong time,” Rankin said.

Last year was example enough of what an active monsoon season can do to a crop. “That was really rough on us last year — the cotton quality was terrible, the seed was terrible,” Bagnall said. “Those late hailstorms and all that in October really hurt us; it hurt everybody countywide.”

Rankin has heard it said that if every bloom survived, cotton could produce 12 bales to the acre. But the nature of the crop is to shed much of its fruit. A good yield is at least three 500-pound bales of lint per acre. “Of course, now it’s moved up to where a lot of guys on a good year can make four bales.”

This year, growers are looking forward to at least an average or even above-average yield. Rankin is looking forward to three bales.

“The majority of the cotton across the state looks pretty good,” said Kevin Rogers, executive vice president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association.

“We’re pretty optimistic about the crop. There are areas that were a little bit late getting planted but things are finishing up nicely. I’m a little nervous about the storm coming in this time of year, because when the cotton opens up, that’s when it’s most vulnerable,” Rogers said.

This year’s crop is “looking pretty good right now,” Bagnall agreed, “maybe a little above average, I think. The cold spring hurt a few guys, but I think everybody weathered through that. If the weather holds up, it should be pretty good.”

The season got off to a slow start with the cool, wet spring. A big farmer Rankin knows near Coolidge replanted some areas four times. Rankin, on the other hand, picked a good window to plant. “Everything came up pretty good and we didn’t have to replant.”

“Some guys got (the crop) in and the weather turned cold,” Bagnall said. “… Different varieties (of seeds) do different things. Some of them have some early vigor, some of them don’t.” Arizona is one of the top-yielding states in the nation and it has quality cotton, Bagnall said.

The market

The bad news is that all this good cotton isn’t in a position to fetch a very good price.

“With the trade embargoes that are going on around the world, cotton is really taking it on the chin,” Rogers said. “Our market in China has pretty much dried up because of the trade negotiations. … Our trade scenario in the U.S. has really hurt a lot of agriculture across the country, but specifically the cotton guys in Arizona. Our market is 20 cents (per pound) under where we really need to be.” The price was recently hovering around 58 cents, “and we really need to be over 70 cents to make this thing work.”

“I’ve been farming on my own for 40 years,” Rankin said. “One year my brother and I sold some cotton for 64 cents. That was the lowest we’d ever gone. Right now the price is 58 or 59 cents.”

Before the trade war with China, the price was in the high 80s, occasionally 90 cents. “I’ve only gotten 90 cents for cotton maybe three times in 40 years,” Rankin said. “Normally the price runs in the 70- to 80-cent range. … Depending on your situation, your break-even is going to be 75 to 80 cents. So when the price is 60 cents, it’s pretty tough. When they (the Chinese) quit buying corn and soybeans, they quit buying cotton, too.”

The California marketing company Rankin works with says it’s working hard to find good markets and prices. “I guess Vietnam is becoming a big textile country. … So they’re hoping — I’m hoping — maybe we’ll get something in the low 70s for this year.”

“The way the tariffs are going, I’m not too sure,” Bagnall said. “I talked to a couple of buyers (who said) they might see a spike and some other stuff if the tariffs let go. Last year we started off pretty high (in price), but this year it’s not looking good. Hopefully the yield will take care of part of that. Once the tariffs come off, maybe we’ll see a spike and prices will come up a little bit. That’s all we can hope for. It’s not a good marketing year. It’s just terrible, really,” Bagnall said.

Costs trend upward

The break-even price can be different for every farmer, for a variety of reasons, Rogers said. In parts of Pinal County water is expensive, and farmers need good yield to offset that expense, he added. But today’s farmers, who sometimes have a computer on the tractor, are using modern technology to make the most of their resources.

“Our water consumption is down to about half of what we used to use 30 years ago. Agriculture is continually looking for ways to be more efficient in everything we do,” Rogers said. “Especially with water, it’s one of the most expensive things we spend on our crops.” Farmers work closely with the University of Arizona to find the best new technologies. “It’s not your grandpa’s farm,” Rogers said.

It costs $125 to $150 per acre to buy seed, which 20 years ago cost $9, Bagnall said. It’s more expensive because it has more vigor and is more resistant to pests. “The more technology you have in that seed, the more you’re going to pay … but that technology really pays off in the end,” Bagnall said.

Fuel and other costs go up as well, but the price of cotton hasn’t budged that much in 25 years. “It seems like everything else goes up but the price of cotton,” Bagnall said.

Washington has stepped up and made some payments to cotton farmers to offset some of their losses, Rogers said. Farmers have probably lost $300 an acre in the trade wars, and the government has compensated them $150, Rankin said. He said he would’ve rather had the price. “The scary part is if you get the market back.”

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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