Boy, how time flies! It only seems like yesterday I was on the cover of this magazine having been the Mississippi Extension cotton specialist for three years. That was 1989. Before I was named cotton specialist, I spent several good years working as
an area agronomist in the southwestern part of the state.
In an area role, I worked with other crops. However, cotton seemed to be where my interest and time were drawn. There has always been something fascinating about cotton. Not only the plant itself, which is arguably the most fascinating and complicated one grown commercially in the Mid-South, but the history, culture and politics of cotton just seem to get into your blood and, once there, never leave.
Cotton people understand that affection for the crop, its culture and potential rewards for the producer and the community. In my opinion for the Mid-South, there is just no crop like cotton, period. Yes, we need to plant crops such as corn, soybeans, rice and peanuts. But there is a core acreage of cotton that should remain there to support the farm community as well as the state’s economy.
There are many factors that should be considered in reaching the sustainable mix of crop acreages in a region. Soil type, land classification, irrigation capability and infrastructure are but a few of those. I honestly believe that cotton has given up too much acreage in the Mid-South, and it has resulted in an impact on the local economies, reaching beyond the farm community.
Significant short term and/or rapid shifts in crop acreage mixes can put tremendous strains on the agricultural system and local/state economies. Looking recently at my home state of Mississippi, in 2006 we harvested 1.22 million acres, producing 2.1 million bales. By 2009 – just three short years later – we harvested 295,000 acres and produced 683,000 bales. Can our region survive without cotton being planted on a large part of the soils and land best suited for its culture? Sure, but the landscape will certainly look a lot different than it has and does today.
Last year cotton producers increased their acreage, and I sense a renewed enthusiasm for cotton that I have not seen in several years. Of course, cotton prices have helped fuel that feeling. Cotton producers are experiencing a shift in momentum coming off a very good crop with relatively good prices. We must continue that momentum and carry on into the new crop year. Hopefully, we will see and feel the buzz of cotton that a lot of us experienced in the late 1980s and all through the 1990s.
Some have asked me what I have been up to since I stepped aside as the Mississippi cotton specialist. Many of my friends told me that I was too young to retire and still had some knowledge and experience to contribute to cotton producers and the cotton industry. So get back in the field, they said. Recently, I was approached about doing some part-time consultant work for Dow AgroSciences’ PhytoGen cotton seed division. Since joining PhytoGen as a consultant, it has been very refreshing to see many of my farmer and industry friends and to realize that I hadn’t quite forgotten all that I once knew.
Cotton has always had issues and problems, but I have never seen any group more resilient and more innovative than cotton producers and cotton professionals. In my career, I have not seen a biological or production problem that the cotton industry did not solve – from MSMA-resistant cockleburs, several insect plagues, pesticide resistance issues, nematodes, diseases, drainage/water problems, mechanization issues and others.
The cotton industry has prevailed and will do so now as we face new challenges. Cotton people just do not quit and will continue to be among leaders in the agricultural community for years to come.
– Will McCarty, Starkville, Miss.