Coming off two successive record crops in 2004 and 2005, cotton is becoming established again as a major agricultural commodity in the Rolling Plains of north Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, but Oklahoma cotton farmers face significant challenges in 2006, says Bob Collins, secretary of the Oklahoma Cotton Council.
“I have been a cotton farmer for years,” Collins said. “If someone had told me 20 years ago cotton would no longer be one of the major sources of income to farmers in this vicinity, I would have laughed at them.”
But it happened.
Like a lot of other people who relied on cotton, Collins knew the boll weevil was a serious threat. In the 1990s, the boll weevil made it too expensive to farm cotton in many areas. Each year, farmers needed more and more insecticide applications to fight the weevil, Collins said.
“I accepted the responsibility of being executive secretary of the Oklahoma Cooperative Cotton Ginners Association in 1981,” he explained. “There were 54 cooperative cotton gins and 30 gins owned by the Chickasha Cotton Oil Co. and other independent owners in this area. Now there are 18 cooperative gins and two independently owned gins.”
The boll weevil put 64 cotton processing centers permanently out of business. Another example of the negative effect of the boll weevil took place in 1997 in Tillman County, once the leading Oklahoma cotton producing county, when three farm cooperatives were dissolved to become one cooperative. Three cotton gins closed forever. The new cooperative, Tillman County Producers Cooperative, reopened the Red River gin southwest of Frederick to take care of the cotton being produced. That gin expects to process more than 48,000 bales for the 2005 season.
“What saved the cotton industry across the United States, not just in the Rolling Plains, was the boll weevil eradication program,” Collins said. “The boll weevil is no longer a problem for cotton farmers.”
But other challenges remain. A battle has been joined between the Bush Administration and members of Congress who represent cotton producing states, Collins said.
“Negotiators who are working with the World Trade Organization and other cotton producing nations think U. S. cotton farmers have to give up important government production incentives so the United Sates can compete effectively in world markets. On the other hand, Congress has told administration representatives they don't intend to make big changes in the 2007 farm bill.”
Also, dry weather, some call it a drought, is making cotton farmers uneasy right now, Collins said.
“If you drive north past Hobart, Okla.,” he said, “winter wheat doesn't look too bad. Although it probably hasn't been enough, farmers up there have had more rain than farther south. If we don't get good rains this month, there won't be much wheat to harvest.”
Without a wheat crop to harvest, Collins believes more farmers will be planting cotton so they can put money in the bank before wheat planting starts next fall.
“There will be more cotton planted this year,” he said. “And if we get good rains in the next two months, I believe there will be even more cotton planted. A lot of farmers will plant more cotton than ever. An indication is that all of the cottonseed available for 2006 spring planting is spoken for. We could see shortages in certain varieties.”
With these challenges on international and local stages looming, Collins is riding a new horse. In August, 2005, the Cooperative Ginners Association of Oklahoma, the Cotton Cooperative Foundation Inc. and the Oklahoma Cotton improvement Association faded away to become one group, the Oklahoma Cotton Council.
Collins, who had been executive secretary of the cotton ginners group, accepted the challenge of leading the new organization.
“We needed to regroup and put all our effort into one organization that would not only serve the cotton farmer, ginner and warehouseman, but also be a leader in pushing for more cotton research and legislative help.” Collins said. “We are going to be more active in seeking legislation that will assist cotton production in Oklahoma and we are going to help Oklahoma State University and other entities in cotton research.”
Collins, who at one time only worried about his cotton farm and the responsibilities of being Tillman County Schools superintendent, has seen cotton production in the good times and when it almost failed completely.
Now, he sees a new awakening. Developments like transgenic cotton varieties and no till cultivation are helping cotton regain its place in agricultural production.
But some of these practices have not been tested in times of drought. Cotton marketing companies are worried about the loss of American textile mills. Cotton can be exported to China or South Korea, milled into shirts and then sold back to U. S. consumers cheaper than if produced entirely in this country.
These are exciting times for cotton production in this country, but there is a lot of uncertainty.
“One thing is for sure,” Collins said, “the future won't be dull. When I started working with cotton people, I had to learn fast. And I am still learning. Cotton is on its way back and I am happy to be along for the ride.”