October 6, 2013 12:37:34 AM
William Browning - [email protected]
They are out there now, those pieces of stray cotton crowding the edges of some Golden Triangle roads.
For decades, around this time of year when farmers head into fields to harvest, cotton has been roadside scenery in Mississippi. Jay Hoover, a Noxubee County farmer, was driving a road with cotton-white edges last week and said, "I guess you could call it fall's decoration."
At its peak, around 1930, Mississippi had 4 million acres of cotton planted across it. There was a saying -- "Cotton is king." But those words don't stand so true anymore.
Roughly 300,000 acres of cotton were planted in Mississippi this year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. That ties the state's lowest mark ever, which was first set in 2009.
There are a handful of reasons behind the lower number of statewide acres, said Darrin Dodds, the state's cotton specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service.
Cotton seeds are generally more expensive than corn and soybeans. Dodds noted that a 50-pound cotton seed bag might cost $650. Then there's the work required to maintain a crop. Next to rice, Dodds said, cotton needs the most attention of all crops because a farmer must combat insects and weed, and defoliate prior to picking. One local farmer put it like this: "Cotton doesn't like anything more than your shadow." More work equals higher costs.
Still, Dodds stressed cotton will never completely vanish.
"Certainly, acres have fluctuated a lot over the last several years," he said, noting that after the 2009, the number of acres bounced up again in 2010, 2011 and 2012, before going back down. "But cotton is still a very profitable crop to grow."
In fact, while the Delta has seen its cotton acreage dwindle as farmers there move toward grains, local farmers say cotton has seen a bit of a resurgence around the Golden Triangle.
For a stretch in the 1800s, Noxubee County was the highest cotton-producing county in the state. There were nine gins in the county at one point in the 1950s. As cotton production dropped, though, they closed one by one. In 1982, the last closed.
In the late 1980s cotton began hitting Black Belt prairie soil fields again. Bill Skinner's family, in 1988, was one of the first to bring it back. One of the biggest reasons: cotton makes a good rotation crop to go along with corn.
Planting corn on top of corn year in and year out can lead to disease issues, Dodds said. To offset that, farmers will rotate in a crop every other year. In Noxubee County and surrounding areas, they favor cotton.
"You typically see a little bit of a yield increase on a cotton crop following a corn crop," Dodds said. "It's not uncommon to see a 10 percent yield increase."
Skinner, who has 1,000 acres of cotton planted this year, said, "We've had real good luck with that (rotation)."
As irrigation capabilities have increased, so have acres of corn. In turn, local cotton acres moved up slightly because of rotation.
Joe Huerkamp, whose family has 1,500 acres of cotton planted in Noxubee County, said the county as a whole has roughly 12,000 acres of cotton planted on it.
"It's safe to say we're committed to it," he said.
Cotton has become something of a tradition on area farms, which tend to be smaller in size when compared to those in the Delta. Tyler Huerkamp, Joe's son, said cotton "gets in your blood" because of the amount of work it requires. He's been planting it in Noxubee County since 2003 and trusts its yield each year.
"You never count on cotton," he said. "But never count it out."
The clearest sign of cotton's longtime future in the Golden Triangle, though, is the $7.5 million Bogue Chitto Gin built last year just outside of Brooksville. The gin turned out 35,960 bails of locally grown cotton in 2012 and Hoover, the gin's manager, expects another good year in 2013.
Aside from all of the other factors that might dictate how much cotton is grown, Joe Huerkamp has faith in cotton's future for a pretty straight forward reason.
"As long as folks still like to wear cotton shirts and blue jeans," he said, "cotton isn't going anywhere."
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.