Is it possible for a cotton production region to bounce back after enduring a recordbreaking drought in 2011? If you’re a typical Texas High Plains producer, you will always say that “things have to be better in 2012.”
That statement alone is what separates farmers from the rest of the population. Optimism is the driving force for these stewards of the land.
Even though planting has already begun in south Texas, it’s still a wait-and-see situation for the rest of the state. Producers, such as Eddie Smith of Floydada, aren’t ready to declare the drought over in their regions. But there is some guarded optimism, considering that rainfall levels are already higher than last year at this time.
If anybody can add some perspective to how difficult the 2011 drought was for Texas cotton production, Smith is that person. He has completed 38 crop seasons, dating back to the days when he first started helping his father Ed on the family operation.
And make no mistake about this fact. Eddie has seen a lot of different weather patterns hit his area during nearly four decades. Last year was unlike anything he has ever seen.
“We planted about 3,500 cotton acres, but we didn’t harvest nearly that much,” he says. “It was a tough year. In fact, it was the most extreme weather I’ve seen or experienced. You might even call it phenomenal.”
Historic Drought In Texas
Most Texas observers say that 2011 came as close to the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s as anything they’ve seen in recent history. Smith wasn’t around to experience those historic droughts. But he saw enough of last year’s weather to have a good idea of what it was like.
“I have never seen a situation where it didn’t rain for such a long time,” he says. “And it was remarkable how long this weather trend persisted. We’ve had dry weather before but nothing like this.”
What made the environment so difficult on the High Plains was excessive wind, which persisted into mid-July. Smith kept waiting for a window of opportunity, but it never came.
“It just wasn’t a normal situation,” he says in reflecting on the experience. “Coupled with the hot temperatures, it was virtually impossible to keep anything wet in the fields and keep it growing.”
Not surprisingly, most West Texas producers don’t want to dwell too much on what happened last year. Total state cotton production deceased by more than 50 percent to 3.5 million bales. Production hasn’t been that low in Texas since 1992. The topic of conversation for Smith and his fellow High Plains producers is trying to anticipate rainfall levels for 2012 and being as conservative as possible with their input costs.
Is La Niña About To End?
Some weather reports are speculating that the La Niña pattern, which has caused drought patterns in Texas, might be subsiding or “breaking up” in April or May.
Smith has heard the same reports and believes the timing couldn’t be any better – if it actually happens.
“We are certainly hopeful that the La Niña pattern will break the right way for us,” he says. “That would be good news. We have already seen a bit of a shift. And we’ve certainly seen more moisture since Christmas than we had last year. That is a fairly encouraging sign.”
Another weather trend also encourages Smith as he tries to prepare for the new season. The wind is still blowing on the High Plains, but he hasn’t noticed persistent winds that were so evident in 2011. That, in turn, has prevented an outbreak of serious grassfires, which were common last year.
Crop insurance certainly played a big part in Texas for producers receiving some kind of assistance. Such a safety net allowed farmers to look ahead to 2012 with the thought that conditions would improve.
However, Smith also is approaching the new season with a conservative management strategy.
“As farmers, we are going to be very cautious of going in and spending a lot of money on a crop that might not produce a lot,” he says. “We have to be pretty frugal and conservative about applying inputs into this crop – that is, until we feel comfortable.”
Smith will be the first to admit that producers who had irrigated cotton acreage last year “took it on the chin.” In his own operation, he spent money on inputs for what he thought would be a normal crop year. Cost-wise, his operation took a financial hit.
“Even though crop insurance and good prices helped us, it was still a tough year,” he says.
In a normal year, the Smith farm has three kinds of irrigation in its cotton production:
• Drip irrigation land averages yields between 1,200 and 1,800 pounds per acre.
• Pivot irrigation land averages yields between 750 and 1,250 pounds per acre.
• Row irrigation land averages yields around 600 pounds per acre.
Suffice it to say that the Smith farm didn’t hit its yield averages in 2011. But there is the promise of a better situation if the weather patterns cooperate later this spring.
Plans Proceed Ahead
Even with the threat of another drought hanging over the High Plains, Smith will continue to plant two FiberMax varieties – FM 9170B2F and FM 9063B2F. He’ll also plant two Deltapine varieties – DP 0912 B2RF and DP 1044 B2RF.
He and his father Ed, son Eric, long-time farm manager Clint Bingham and consultant Trent Long have found a way to prevent any serious weed resistance outbreaks on the acreage. He also hasn’t had to deal with serious insect pests except for the occasional thrips problem.
“I’m very fortunate to have my son Eric and father Ed helping on the farm,” says Eddie. “I also can’t say enough about Clint Bingham and Trent Long for what they do for us. Even when I was traveling during the past few years, I never felt uncomfortable leaving the farm.”
Long says it’s remarkable that Eddie can serve in so many industry positions while still being involved in every aspect of the farm. He has worked with the Smith farm for more than 20 years.
Long mainly scouts for insects and makes recommendations on fertility programs. But he is also available to help with other tasks such as water management.
“You could never call Eddie an insurance farmer,” says Long. “He wants to produce a crop, and he wants to do a good job. He has told me on more than one occasion that his favorite time of the year is harvest. That’s when he gets to see the fruits of his labor.”
Better Days Ahead
Maybe a recordbreaking drought would completely dampen a farmer’s enthusiasm. But, for Eddie and his farm crew, the fact that they are still farming and somehow survived last year’s weather is a testament to their determination.
Every season is different with its unique set of problems awaiting the farmer.
“We will always have challenges in this business,” says Eddie. “But we’ll meet them and grow stronger. That’s the attitude we must have, and that’s what keeps us going.”
Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Smith Proved Effective As Cotton Industry Leader
Despite the commitment of time needed to run a farming operation, Eddie Smith hasn’t shied away from leadership positions in the cotton industry. He recently served three years with the National Cotton Council where he was vice-chairman, chairman and board chairman. He also has been chairman and director for Cotton Incorporated and director of the Texas Agricultural Cooperative Council.
Smith traveled across the country representing all segments of the cotton industry while serving in leadership roles for the NCC. In addition, he made many trips to Washington to testify before Congress.
“Sometimes when I would walk the halls on Capitol Hill with John Maguire (NCC Vice President of Washington Operations), it was a surreal feeling,” he says in reflecting on those experiences. “I was in awe of the surroundings and a bit nervous. However, we had an open door wherever we went.”
Steve Verett, executive vice president of Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., has been friends with Smith since the 1980s when Verett farmed in Ralls, Texas.
“It’s reassuring when you have a friend like Eddie,” says Verett. “We’ve known for a long time that he was an excellent farmer who could also be a leader for our industry. He has made all of us proud for what he’s done for cotton through the years. Eddie is more than just a farmer. He’s a man of character who represents us well no matter where he travels.”