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King Cotton Dethroned in the American South

  • Erika Celeste

For more than two centuries, cotton has been king in the American South. Cotton was the mainstay of the economy and some aspect of the industry touched everyone's life. But that is no longer the case. Two other crops, soybeans and corn have taken the lead over cotton in the state of Mississippi, formerly one of the largest cotton exporters. Erika Celeste reports from the Mississippi Delta.

James Failing surveys his fields and muses, "A lot of times for a man, what he is, is what he does. My grandfather started right on this little farm outside of town. We've been growing cotton there since time began."

Failing's family may have been growing cotton since time began, but things just aren't what they used to be. He used to plant 1200 hectares of cotton annually. This year he's put in less then 40 hectares. The rest of his land is now devoted to soybeans and rice.

"To be a cotton farmer now," he explains, "you almost have to be sentimental about it, because economically, it doesn't make a lot of sense. It's much more difficult to grow, much more labor intensive, much more management intensive, and it won't cash well in today's market."

Nevertheless, the nation's cotton farmers produce 20 million bales a year. Only 14 million are used, mainly in the clothing and furniture industries. The remaining quarter of the harvest is for export, where it faces competition from the world's leading cotton producers, China and India.

Art Smith, an agronomy agent with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, says those countries have an economic advantage. "Their cost of production and the fact that they can operate their mills a lot cheaper than we can, naturally tends to draw the cotton." He says the situation is just part of the business cycle.

Foreign competition is only part of the equation. Smith points out that other crops bring in more money. "We've had tremendous increases in the prices of soybeans, corn, and really haven't seen that kind of market appreciation in cotton. "

James Failing agrees that there are many reasons for today's farmer to invest in other crops. "Cotton is the most demanding crop that there is. It's very finicky from the seed to get it to come out of the ground. There are a host of pests, both weed and insect that plague it. You don't have the variety of chemicals that you can put on other crops."

Yet there's just something about the cotton that keeps a special few tending the fields. Failing says planting cotton goes deeper than tradition or the fact that it keeps those who run the cotton gins and storage warehouses employed. Like a fine wine, it has its own special allure.

He says it's a philosophy and a way of life. "I like actually growing the plant. My wife will tell you that I'm the most unpleasant when I plant," he admits with a grin. "Planting cotton is just hard. Anybody who tells you they can set a planter is either a fool or a liar. Growing the crop is fun, when you're doing your weed control and irrigation, trying to set fruit. I guess that's the hopeful stage because you do have direct input."

Over the past several years, more research has gone into cotton then any other crop in the South. It has improved the plant's yield, and made it more resistant to pests. However, Art Smith observes, all that genetic technology comes at a price: more expensive cotton seeds, adding to the cost of growing the crop. But paying more for the technology, he adds, is part of the price of doing business. "You've got to have an influx capital to continue to do your research. You've got to take a profit. It's vitally important that research and development continues at as rapid pace as possible and you can't do it without having some return on your investment."

Despite the decline in cotton planting, Art Smith is not ready to say "King" Cotton has been exiled from the South. Cotton prices are predicted to improve in 2010, when there will be less carryover from previous years' harvests, and it will again be profitable for farmers to put their equipment back into service. "We've got a lot of brand new picker [machines] that people own that are in the shed," Smith says, "and they can stay in the shed until prices get better. How long they'll let them stay there before they make a decision that they're through with cotton, would be hard to say, but I would say they can stay there a while."

The cotton plants in the Delta fields are still quite small. A wet spring made planting a little more difficult this year. Row upon row of tiny seedlings are now poking out of the muddy field on Failing's farm. He's looking forward to the coming months. "It goes from being green and soft to brown and hard and when it matures it opens up and that's when you see the white fluffy cotton. So long as it doesn't rain when it's doing this, it just gets whiter and fluffier in a good year." He compares it to a snow bank. "It's a dazzling field, where you honestly need sunglasses it's so white."

That's only if it doesn't rain. If it rains after the fluffy cotton has come out, the plant droops and the cotton becomes discolored, losing much of its value. Failing says that hurts everyone in the community. "I have friends in town who are merchants [and] when there's no cotton, there's not a lot of people shuffling in to buy."

Failing says it saddens him to realize cotton may never be King again in Mississippi, as it was when he was a boy. But he's sure it will be all right, explaining that he and other farmers will do what they need to, to survive, even if that means switching to another crop. "Can we do something else? Sure, but," he adds with a mischievous grin, "do you want to be wearing polyester?"

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