Cotton no longer economically viable for many Southern farmers

MONROE, La. -- Along the byways of northeastern Louisiana, for years, fields of white would spread out as far as one could see this time of year. The cotton is defoliated, the bolls exposed and plump, waiting to be picked. King cotton. The phrase...

MONROE, La. -- Along the byways of northeastern Louisiana, for years, fields of white would spread out as far as one could see this time of year.

The cotton is defoliated, the bolls exposed and plump, waiting to be picked.

King cotton. The phrase reflected the importance of the crop to the region's agrarian economy.

In recent years, the king's crown had tarnished. Competition from other countries squeezed farmers, as the profit margin continued to shrink for farmers. Their cost of production continued to rise as the price they earned in the marketplace failed to keep pace.

Many farmers turned their back on cotton, choosing instead to chase after the promise posed by corn and soybean. The rush to produce ethanol increased markets for those crops, and their profit potential.


Others, however, toiled on, putting their hopes into the old Southern standby. With the onslaught of hurricanes, however, those hopes have been dashed.

After a long growing season, the crop is most vulnerable when it is most beautiful. Those exposed, fluffy bolls are at the mercy of nature. And after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike dumped their flooding rains across the state, farmers were despairing.

Of the 260,000 acres of cotton planted, only 180,000 acres will be harvested, according to LSU AgCenter specialist Sandy Stewart. The rest lies in the fields ruined.

The cotton that can be salvaged will draw a poor price because exposure to the harsh elements has diminished the quality of the cotton, which is graded for quality based on color, fiber strength, length and coarseness.

"If you have cotton, you're taking a 10 (percent) to 15 percent hit on quality," says Jay Hardwick, a Tensas Parish producer and vice chairman of the National Cotton Council.

The cotton farmers of northeastern Louisiana gambled and lost. Now they face severe economic consequences. With heavy losses this season the -- worst results in six decades -- experts predict the trend of declining prices, and with credit across the country frozen, many farmers will be forced to give up their livelihoods. To continue is untenable. Those who cannot satisfy pre-harvest contracts could find themselves filing bankruptcy.

"It's a helluva mess," Hardwick says. And it poses problems for the entirety of northeastern Louisiana's economy.

There is a ray of hope. If Congress convenes for a lame-duck session, a disaster package for farmers in the South and Midwest hit hard by weather could see the light of day. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, are committed to pursuing such legislation, even if the odds are against them.


In northeastern Louisiana, such aid becomes vital. In the Delta parishes, where poverty is prevalent, jobs few and the population shrinking and aging, the future looks increasingly bleak unless Congress can ride to the rescue.

-- Monroe (La.) News-Star

Be careful with ethanol

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Drivers who fill up their gas tanks thinking they're pumping 10 percent ethanol may be surprised to learn it could be much more.

The resulting damage can mean costly car repairs.

Experts blame a process called "splash blending," which often doesn't thoroughly mix gasoline and ethanol.

Splash blending is frowned upon in other countries such as Britain, but it's widely practiced in the U.S. It's a challenge for state regulators, who only check fuel makeup periodically.

Such checks should come more frequently, especially when the price of ethanol drops below that of gasoline.


The Kansas City (Kan.) Star says while it's not known how much excess ethanol is finding its way into our fuel tanks, people who conduct fuel tests frequently find proportions that are badly out of whack.

Since ethanol doesn't have the same energy content as gasoline, the result is lower fuel mileage. At high levels, excess ethanol can cause damage to catalytic converters and engine parts, including fuel pumps.

When ethanol is cheaper than gasoline, the fuel industry has an incentive to put in too much of the cheaper fuel, using splash blending.

When the price of ethanol dips below that of gasoline, the frequency of fuel tests by state officials should increase. At the same time, state lawmakers should look at whether regulators are doing enough to protect consumers.

As Todd Sneller of the Nebraska Ethanol Board puts it, "The consumer has a right to know that if E10 (10 percent ethanol) is what is on the pump, that is what is being sold."

-- Kansas City (Kan.) Star

What To Read Next
Get Local