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.
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
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.
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."
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
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."
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?"