“Last year was a disaster,” says cotton farmer Lance Swanberg, “but this year is looking good,” He, along with his brother Marshall, under the name Swanco Farms, plant dryland cotton, all under conservation tillage, in Willacy County in the Rio Grande Valley.

Why the optimism? “It’s simply because we’ve had water,” says Swanberg. The fall and winter provided enough rain in South Texas to penetrate deep into the soil. “It

should sustain the crop for a long time.” Cotton producers who irrigate also benefit since most have pretty much given up hope of receiving the water Mexico owes them.

The Swanbergs are concentrating on protecting this crop and planted within a three week time period, which ends tomorrow. Conditions during that time were almost perfect for planting, a lucky break farmers needed. A concentrated planting date and a uniform stand will make boll weevil control easier.

“All of our cotton is a smooth leaf variety,” says Swanberg. The smooth leaf is a deterrent to white flies, although white flies are less of a problem in Willacy County than other places.

“Seed is a big expense.” Although Swanberg uses all certified seed, he said many producers are saving money by retaining their own seed after harvest, sending them to a processing plant for de-linting and holding in cold storage until planting season. He’s considering saving seed in the future. “We look for any way we can to save money.”

With good reason. The cotton market has been anything but healthy in the last few years. While growers need to get about 72 cents per pound of cotton lint to break even, prices have been stranded at about 40 cents per pound for years. “We’d like to see it

at 85 cents,” says Swanberg.

“Last year insurance barely covered half the expenses,” says Marshall Swanberg, the other half of Swanco. “We have to get a bale-and-a-half per acre plus a good price to make a profit.” He says the new farm bill should provide much-needed backup for farmers.

“There’s no way we could be in farming without government assistance,” he stressed.

The Swanbergs also produce grain, which, along with cotton, occupies the most acreage on their farms. Their most profitable crop is sugarcane. They also raise cattle and have been in the business of farming and ranching for more than 20 years.

John Norman, cotton Extension entomologist at the Texas A&M Research and Extension Center in Weslaco, is as optimistic as area farmers about this year’s crop. “Right now the market’s not quite to 60 cents a pound, but if it continues moving the way it has, we’ll be in good shape.” He also notes that the cotton coming up is looking good.

Norman says farmers in the Valley pretty much adhered to the three-week window for planting. “And very few of them had to replant.” He estimates that about 10,000 more acres of cotton will be planted in South Texas this year than last.

Norman warns farmers about boll weevils, which appear to be arriving in full force. Traps show twelve times the number of boll weevils compared to last year, which was too dry to see large numbers. This is the down side to the good news that there is plenty of moisture.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com