The bolls are a bright shade of white. They're fluffy with hardly a blemish to be found. And they're huge.
Many cotton farmers in northwest Alabama will tell you they can't quickly recall a better crop than the one they are harvesting now.
"It's a pretty crop; it looks nice and it's heavy," said Lendon Brown, a Colbert County farmer. He and his family have farmed cotton for nearly 70 years in the Cherokee area.
Brown said about 25 percent of his cotton crop has already been picked and baled. He and his workers were back in the fields during the weekend to continue the harvest. When completed, Brown expects to average above 850 pounds of cotton per acre.
Despite the yield, Brown — as well as dozens of other farmers in the Tennessee Valley — is contemplating ending his long association with cotton.
"I'm afraid the king is going away," Brown said, referring the "King Cotton" label that southern farmers and politicians have used for more than 150 years. "Our yield is up and prices are down. Cotton is no longer profitable.
"I don't know if we'll plant an acre (of cotton) next year. We probably won't."
Brown is among those farmers who have been trying to hang on to cotton, but his production has dropped in recent years, from about 2,000 acres a decade ago to 500 acres this year.
Unless prices change dramatically, Brown said, he will devote more resources to soybeans, corn and wheat in 2013.
Ron Smith, an entomologist at the Auburn University Extension Office, specializes in crops. He said it appears Alabama will set a record for cotton yields this year. The best yields on record for the state have been 785 pounds per acre. He said conservative estimates put this year's yield at 790 pounds, and he said that number could surpass 800 pounds per acre when the final totals are reported. He said the Tennessee Valley region of the state is largely responsible for the increase.
Like Brown, Smith knows prices are driving cotton farmers to other crops. Cotton prices are hovering around 72 cents a pound. That's down from an average of about $1.15 per pound in 2011.
"Prices are taking the glamour out of cotton," Smith said.
He said the prices are affected by many factors, including more cotton being produced worldwide than at any other time. That has reduced the amount of cotton being exported from the United States.
"It goes back to supply and demand," Smith said.
He said the transition from cotton to grain crops started about four years ago in many areas of Alabama. He credits farmers for looking ahead and diversifying their operations.
He said the most popular trend in north Alabama involves farmers planting more wheat in the winter and more soybeans in the summer. He said it's a wise business decision.
"Farmers have a lot more options," Smith said. "Corn, wheat and soybeans are near record prices, and they're all somewhat less expensive to grow than cotton. Farmers, through purchases of equipment, have put themselves in a position to go with different crops, which provides them with a better opportunity to make a profit. After all, it is a business for them."
Area extension agents said the soybean crop has been excellent this year, making some farmers nice profits. Soybeans are selling for about $15 a bushel.
Eric Schavey, the regional extension agent whose office is in Belle Mina, said he has heard a lot of optimism from cotton farmers throughout north Alabama. He said he also understands the tough decisions that await them.
"Next year, there won't be much cotton grown at all," Schavey said. "It's just hard for a cotton farmer to compete and make a profit when compared to wheat, beans and corn. They're going to go where the money is."
He said cotton farmers who own gins will likely continue growing cotton, "and some will grow cotton because they grow cotton. Otherwise, I just don't see a lot of others growing cotton next year."
Colbert County Extension agent Danny McWilliams said some farmers could continue growing cotton because they have invested a lot of money in cotton equipment, which he said is not easily adapted for use in farming grain crops.
"They don't want to see that investment just sit there," McWilliams said. "They face a dilemma. Cotton is not a profitable crop to grow right now, and you've got to essentially have a record crop to make even a little money."
Smith is not ready to say cotton is gone forever. He said many farmers will return to cotton when the demand returns and the prices increase.
Brown is among those farmers who are saddened by the possibility of not seeing those white bolls pop out next fall. As he puts it, "cotton is part of our heritage."
Brown said people no longer realize the importance of farming in the Tennessee Valley.
"They take it for granted," he said. "You wonder what it would be like in our part of the state if it all went away."
Mike Goens can be reached at 256-740-5740 or mike.goens@TimesDaily.com.
|High School Sports||@DecaturPreps|