NO LONGER THE KING — ‘Walkin’ in high cotton’ is all but forgotten as corn and soybeans evolve into top crops

Once was the time that the mere mention of Jefferson County or Pine Bluff conjured up images of cotton, long hailed as the king crop here and throughout the South.

Times have gradually changed, however, and not just here, but around the world. Jefferson County Cooperative Extension Service Staff Chairman Dennis Bailey said more and more Arkansas farmers are focusing on soybean and corn production “because that’s where the money’s at.” And other U.S. and foreign planters are, of course, also following the green in a global market that has become more competitive as the world has seemingly grown smaller.

Nationally, cotton market watchers are forecasting 2013 to be another bleak year. The National Cotton Council expects that total U.S. cotton acreage this year will be down 27 percent from 2012 and reach a 30-year low.

Last year in Jefferson County, cotton crop production values took a dramatic drop and so did cotton acreage, according to Bailey.

“We had only 4,100 acres of cotton here last year,” Bailey said. “Ten years ago, we had about 25,000.”

Regarding Arkansas’ cotton crop returns, NCC states, “The decline in cotton acres is also consistent with relative returns for cotton and competing crops based on current futures markets. Using USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) costs of production and trend yields, the shortfall between cotton net returns and returns for corn and soybeans is substantially larger than in 2009, the most recent low in acreage.”

Bailey said that during the brief time he’s been with the University of Arkansas program here, he’s seen examples and read accounts of how cotton formerly dominated local commerce.

But despite the cotton woes, county producers enjoyed a highly successful 2012.

“Jefferson County’s producers actually had a better average production value increase than state farmers as a whole,” Bailey said.

Statewide, the value of production for principal farm crops totaled 5.2 billion and was up 23 percent from 2011’s $4.25 billion mark. Among the local primary crops of soybeans, corn, rice, wheat, cotton and grain sorghum, Jefferson County’s production value increased $44.4 million to $216.5 million, a jump of 26.1 percent over 2011’s $170.1-million performance.

“Other crops, horticulture, timber and livestock are an additional impact each year,” Bailey said of the local agricultural assessment.

Last year’s total acreage, per-acre yield, unit price and total production value, respectively, for the chief local crops were:

SOYBEANS — 110,800; 48 bu.; $14.50; $77.1 million.

CORN — 53,500; $170 bu.; $7.40; $67.3 million.

RICE — 59,800; 69 cwt.; $14; $57.7 million.

WHEAT — 20,800; 56 bu.; $7.50; $8.7 million.

COTTON — 4,100; 1,020#; $.70; $2.9 million.

GRAIN SORGHUM — 3,100; 60 bu.; $4.30; $.8 million.

Bailey said the county’s crop values have rebounded strongly since a drop from $150.7 million in 2008 to $138.5 million in 2010. The increase to 2012’s total is even more dramatic when compared to the respective 2006 and 2004 totals of $92.1 million and $83.2 million.

Nationally in 2012, production value for principal field crops was up 7 percent, at $188 billion, from 2011. Corn — at $77.3 billion — was the leading field crop, followed by soybeans at $43.2 billion.

Statewide, cotton’s 2012 production value was down 28 percent, the biggest slide among principal crops.

On international cotton trade, reduced imports by China are only partially offset by increased imports in other countries, leading to a decline in world trade from 38.9 million bales to 36 million, NCC reports. Also, increases in China’s government cotton reserves more than offset a decline in available cotton stocks.

“It appears that shifts in demand for U.S. cotton are on the horizon,” states the NCC forecast. “In recent years, China accounted for 30 percent of U.S. cotton offtake. U.S. mills bought 20 percent of the crop, while Turkey and Mexico accounted for another 20 percent. All other customers combined for the remaining 30 percent. With China’s domestic production and mill use being much closer in line with each other, it is likely that they will not need 30 percent of the U.S. crop. It appears that market is now shifting to other countries in Asia.”

The International Cotton Advisory Committee projects that 2013-14 global cotton production will decrease by 11 percent to 23.2-million tons because of the lower cotton prices and “increased attractiveness” of competing crops.