Cotton-pickin' numbers: Cotton rebounding in Wilson County after years of low output

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Click the play button to watch a video on cotton production in Wilson County.

Cotton in Wilson County is seeing a slight bounce, but production is still much lower than historic highs.

“If things kind of stay where they are at right now, we have kind of turned the corner on the real low point on cotton and we ought to maintain these acres or possibly go up a little bit,” said Norman Harrell, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County. “We turned the corner from the bottom.”

Harrell estimates that cotton gross earnings could reach as high as $3.93 million in Wilson County, which is more than double earnings in 2016, at $1.67 million.

There are 7,329 acres of cotton planted in the county, which is up from 3,762 acres in 2016.

Harrell said an early estimate of yields this year is for about 825 pounds per acre., which is also better than the 670 pounds per acre farmers reported in 2016.

With that much cotton available, Wilson County has the potential to produce 8,187 bales for 2017. In 2016, the number of bales was 5,251.

Historically, Wilson County has grown an abundance of cotton early in the 20th century, but the cotton boll weevil put an end to that.

“The boll weevil is a very destructive pest on cotton,” Harrell said. “Due to that pest, our acres dropped down really low in North Carolina and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture started the Boll Weevil Eradication Program and they worked to intensively manage those fields that remained in cotton to control that weevil. Once we kind of got that weevil controlled, we have been able to increase opur acres without the boll weevil concerns. The Boll Weevil Monitoring Program is still in place. Growers pay an assessment for every acre of cotton that they have.”

Some people may recall seeing boll weevil trap poles between roads and farm fields.

“It’s green and looks like a little rocket, but that’s actually a boll weevil trap that is monitored to see if we have any boll weevils moving back into our area,” Harrell said. “We have eliminated the boll weevils from our area with the eradication program.”

Wilson County started planting more cotton in 1989 and ’90 when the acres really started to pick up, Harrell said.

Wilson County was in high cotton in the year 2005, when 53,378 bales of cotton were produced. In that banner year, some 24,827 acres were planted and the yield was high at 1,032 pounds per acre. Earnings on cotton that year were $13.23 million.

“We had tremendous yields,” Harrell said. “The county averaged over two bales of cotton to the acre, which is really good and we had a lot of acres. So when you’ve got a lot of acres and a good yield, it really magnifies the amount of gross farm income for the crop.”

Since that peak, though, farmers have gradually planted less cotton in Wilson County for multiple reasons.

“One is we have seen the price of cotton go down over time and that’s probably a reflection of the worldwide cotton supply and cotton demand,” Harrell said.

Prices have been suppressed for a while, causing farmers to evaluate whether the crop was worth planting.

“It takes more money per acre to grow cotton and it’s more management-intense than soybeans and corn,” Harrell said. “If a grower can make about the same amount of money off of corn or soybeans that take less management and less input cost, they decided to shift that route, so they were decreasing the amount of input costs that they had so that reduced the risks some as well as reduced the management that was needed, so that was a reason that we saw a shift from cotton to corn and soybeans.”

A third reason farmers have shied away from cotton is the weed commonly referred to as pigweed,

It’s also known as Palmer amaranth. It is resistant to glyphosate, or Roundup.

“It has been extremely hard to control this weed in cotton, so farmers shifted away from cotton just for having to manage this weed,” Harrell said.

“The last reason I would say we shifted out of cotton is if you go back several years ago, we just had two relatively low-yielding years, so if you’ve got a low yield with a low price and problems controlling weeds, farmers were just ready to try something different,” Harrell said.

If the cotton price rebounds, farmers have had some new tools come on the market to control pigweed.

“Farmers know how to grow it,” Harrell said. “We have the infrastructure here to grow it. We could see cotton acres rebound, but I think it is really contingent upon the price of cotton increasing to see some real gains in cotton.”

Harrell said the weather has been good for cotton production in 2017.

“I think we are going to have a pretty decent cotton crop this year,” Harrell said. “We went through some dry periods, but we were able to get some timely rains in August that helped some of that cotton crop fill out. We have gotten really dry lately that might affect some of the top crop cotton trying to develop but overall, the weather has been pretty decent on the cotton crop.”