While Lower Rio Grande Valley growers were keeping a wary eye on Tropical Storm Claudette in the Gulf of Mexico, they were also preparing for their first promising harvest in three years.

“The Valley’s made a big turn-around this year,” Mercedes cotton farmer Bobby Sparks said about the 2003 crop, which was about to be defoliated in preparation for harvest. “Both dryland and irrigated cotton are looking good.”

And Sparks knows his cotton—he’s been picking it since he was 12 years old and has been a fulltime farmer for more than 25 years.

“We plowed dryland cotton under last year,” he said. But, this year, Spark’s 100 acres of dryland will produce good cotton, along with the 2,300 irrigated acres.

“We had timely rains at planting, which really helped.” But the big boost came with irrigation. “This year we were able to irrigate. Just one time, but that’s what made a crop.”

Predictions indicated a heavy year for weevils. “But it hasn’t been as bad as we expected,” said Sparks.

Sparks is a firm believer in minimum tillage. “No-till just didn’t work for us.” Currently, he has only 200 acres under minimum till, but says that's the way he’s going to go. Residue protects crops from wind damage and also saves water.

It’s not all good news, though. “The market could be better,” Sparks admitted. Right now producers are getting about 50 cents per pound for their cotton. Farmers can’t make money at that price. “But we’ve got hopes that prices will go up.”

John Norman, cotton IPM entomologist at the Texas A & M Extension and Research Center in Weslaco, echoed Sparks’ feelings. “At 50 cents to 60 cents per pound, farmers are still going to lose money.” But farmers did save on inputs since boll weevils got such a late start. “Producers correctly timed their applications,” said Norman.

That, plus South Texas’s unusually hot weather in May that killed off the immature weevils, gave the cotton a good insect-free beginning. “Producers might have saved 5 or 6 cents per pound on insecticides during that time,” Norman said. But, unless prices go up, that’s not enough to make money.

The weevils are coming on strong now. “The last two to three weeks the weevil picture has changed dramatically,” said Norman. It’s just the time of year when the insect thrives. But, because producers are going after the weevil and spraying heavily, none of their crops are in jeopardy from the insect.

Weather is always the variable. “Now we’re hoping we don’t get big storms.” The cotton has open bolls and is ready for defoliation. “Heavy rain is the death knell for those bolls,” said Norman.

Norman estimates that farmers planted 235,000 to 245,000 acres of cotton in the Rio Grande Valley this year. And it’s all looking good – unlike last year when approximately 70 percent of the cotton had to be plowed under.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com