By Terence Corrigan
‘When them cotton bolls get rotten
You can’t pick very much cotton’ – Leadbelly
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – At the end of October, the Smith brothers waited apprehensively as 650 acres of cotton sat unpicked. Their harvest was delayed by persistent rain in October.
September 2019 was the driest September on record in Middle Tennessee but October’s rainfall was double the average at six and a half inches. October is usually a dry month in Middle Tennessee.
“This is the best yields I’ve seen on this farm,” said Roger Smith.
This year, the growing season weather was “perfect. It rained every week, we had 90-degree weather and then it turned dry in September. We just did fantastic,” he said.
“The only problem is, when it’s ready it’s ready,” Roger said. “The longer you delay the lesser its quality. That’s the reason everybody’s getting anxious now. It’s time to wind this ball of yarn up.”
Because of the delay, he said, “We’ll take a hit on grade and quality.”
Roger knows what it’s like to lose a crop. “In 1975, Daddy had a big cotton crop but there was too much rain. We lost 150 acres of cotton,” Roger explained. “He never did pick it. Daddy said, ‘I’m through.’” Roger inherited the farm that year.
The Smiths are not the only cotton growers in Middle Tennessee with bountiful crops.
Further south, in Lincoln County, cotton growers are also celebrating this year’s yield. “We have an excellent crop in Lincoln County,” said Erin Reed, co-owner of the Elora Gin Warehouse. “We have a record crop. We’re averaging three bales (per acre) right now.”
Last year the Elora gin processed 36,000 bales, this year they anticipate it will be 52,000 bales.
The Elora Gin provides ginning service to 20 growers, from northern Alabama to as far north as the Smith farm in Rutherford County, Tenn.
But, as so often is the case in farming, the joy of a bumper crop is damped by low prices, this time around primarily because of the ongoing trade war with China, and to a lesser extent by the nation’s record crop.
The trouble for cotton growers erupted in May 2018 as cotton futures on the New York market dropped hitting the lowest level since August 2016. The futures plunge was the result of President Donald Trump's announcement on May 13 to impose a fourth round of tariffs against China. By then growers “had already committed to planting cotton before it really hurt us,” said Reed
“We’ve lost 31 cents a pound,” Erin said — a 30 percent loss. The Trump administration’s Market Facilitation Program – established to help farmers weather losses from the trade war — has not been much help, Erin said. “It’s helped a little,” she said. “We’re supposed to get $87 an acre but we lost $310 an acre.”
A lot of growers will take advantage of the government’s Marketing Assistance Loan program for financing to hold them over for a while, “hoping they’ll get this fixed after the first of the year,” Erin said.