Even though he is officially retired from farming, Billy Percy of Greenville still owns several thousand acres of land his brother-in-law farms every year.
Greenville, the Delta’s largest city, owes its existence to the Mississippi River and the fertile soil surrounding it. For decades, better than any other place in the world, that soil grew one crop that came to define the region — cotton.
King Cotton, people called it, and it was a fitting title. The crop’s production – from planting, to harvesting to ginning and warehousing – drove the Delta’s economy, along the way becoming as much a part of the region as the River and the blues.
Those days appear to be over.
For the third consecutive year, none of Percy’s land will grow cotton, and he’s not alone.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Prospective Plantings Report, released March 31, shows cotton acreage in Mississippi will be down 18 percent from 2008, with roughly 300,000 acres of Mississippi farmland devoted to it. In 2006, cotton acreage in the state hit 1.5 million. This year’s crop will be 20 percent of that.
“In the past, until this year, the reason for that was that the other commodity prices were so high in relationship to cotton,” Percy said, referring to corn, soybeans, wheat and rice.
Commodity prices have lowered some, but not enough to spur a re-emergence in cotton, whose prices continue to hover in the 50-60 cent range while corn averages about $6 and soybeans about $9 a bushel.
Percy said there are some parts of the latest Farm Bill that makes cotton a bit more attractive than it has been the past three years, but there will be no bum-rush back to it.
“It seems like what probably is happening is, once you’re out of (growing cotton) for two or three years, it’s not that easy to get back in because your harvest equipment has been sitting up for a couple of years; you may have even sold it,” Percy said. “Even if cotton were equal (price-wise) to the grains, you’re still not going to see a big rush back into cotton. Your operating costs are so much more for cotton that the gamble is greater. So, unless cotton has a clear advantage in price, I don’t think that you’re going to see an increase (in acreage).”
The weak prices primarily stem from a world surplus of cotton, with countries like China, India, Pakistan and Egypt flooding the market. Couple that with the decreased demand in a recession economy, and it becomes clear that growing cotton is, at best, a break-even proposition for Mississippi farmers. Breaking even is not an attractive option with a high-input crop like cotton, especially when fertilizer prices still haven’t stabilized from the record highs last summer. Commodities, especially soybeans that can glean nitrogen from the atmosphere on their own, require substantially less to grow.
“You can’t run the numbers and tell people to stick with it,” said Dr. John Anderson, extension professor of agricultural economics at Mississippi State University. “There’s a lot of competition for those foreign markets. If you look at the amount of cotton we have relative to domestic use, we have more cotton than we need. That’s a little bit misleading, and I really don’t like to talk about it in those terms because we are an important supplier on the global market. It’s just a very competitive global market and it’s tough to keep market share there.”
Bio-energy policy has also put corn and soybeans in demand. With ethanol viewed as a possible, cleaner alternative to gasoline to power vehicles, corn stocks have been spread thin.
Low demand, weak prices and a flooded market represent somewhat of a perfect economic storm that has driven cotton out of Mississippi fields and replaced it with other crops.
“What’s been really surprising, and somewhat troubling, is how quickly that has happened,” Anderson said.
There is some degree of emotional attachment to cotton. Dozens of variations of “cotton festivals” dot the Delta. Several beauty pageants crown a “cotton queen.”
The region’s economic prosperity in the early and middle parts of the 20th century was directly because of it.
And, it is nearly impossible to drive through any of the Delta counties for more than five minutes without seeing a “Cotton” license plate on the front of a vehicle.
“It’s an iconic crop,” Anderson said. “So much of this region’s identity is bound up in cotton.”
Dr. Ernie Flint, extension agent with the Yazoo County and Attala County Extension Service, is a former cotton farmer. He still has the license plate on the front of his truck.
“I’ve lived cotton. I’ve worked cotton. Cotton’s in my blood,” Flint said.
Percy appreciates cotton purely for its economic power.
“I’m sad for other reasons, which is the cotton infrastructure was so much labor intensive and provided employment for so many more people than grains do,” he said. “It’s not so much just a love of the crop or its history or any of that. It is the fact that now you don’t have gins running all fall. You don’t have warehouses that are full of cotton and need a lot of people to move it around. For that reason, (the Delta) is suffering a disproportionately high unemployment rate, and a lot of that is due to the fact that the cotton infrastructure has been pared way, way down. You cannot let your nostalgia for a crop overrule your economic sense. I’m probably a little different from some of the older farmers, who might have some very mixed feelings about not planting it.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at firstname.lastname@example.org .