The cotton market hasn't been farmer-friendly the past few years; the price of fuel, seed and fertilizer have skyrocketed; and in South Texas there has been no measurable rain in six months. Besides that, the boll weevils find the Rio Grande Valley weather much to their liking.

How does a cotton producer in South Texas stay optimistic?

Bobby Sparks of Mercedes, Texas, plans to plant 3,400 acres of cotton this year. “I've got hopes for a good crop this year,” Sparks says. “And we're shooting for 2 bales per acre.”

His optimism comes from changing a lot of his practices in the past year, changes he thinks will translate to money saved and profits improved. He points to a 12-row planter. “We used to use eight-row planters, but we converted to 12 to cut passes across the field. And we'll be cultivating with a sprayer now.”

After experimenting with different tillage practices, he decided that limited tillage best suits his acreage. Sparks usually plants about 500 acres of dryland cotton, but won't do so unless much-needed rain falls soon.

Change often requires a considerable outlay of money. Sparks watched cotton farmers in other areas of the state go to precision farming and knew that SRS Farms, the Sparks' enterprise, had to follow suit. He studied the systems for several years and finally decided that they could soon make up technology cost in higher.

“It takes money to make money, I guess.”

Often it takes some help, too. “Farmers from the Delta area have been helping us this past week with the program.” Delta farmers have realized a 10 percent increase in yields and an increase in profits from 7 percent to 13 percent using variable rate application.

For SRS Farms, precision farming will include a variable rate fertilizer program. An electronic sensor will record the soil type and the specific nutrients lacking in that soil. The information will then be put on a map and into a computer chip and placed in the tractor's computer. Fertilizer application rates will vary according to the map. The spreader applies only what is needed to specific locations.

Sparks has upgraded water efficiency, too. “We've got more pipelines of a better poly-material and we're leveling the land so we use water more efficiently.”

Water conservation will be of utmost importance in the future. Although there is enough water in storage for sufficient irrigation this year, nobody is sure what will happen after that. And, unless the Rio Grande Valley gets some measurable rainfall, a severe drought will continue.

Last year the Valley began a boll weevil eradication program. Although Sparks says the program has had little impact so far, this year should show a difference. He knows the importance of keeping on top of the weevil's game and says the eradication program “is the only way to keep us in the ballpark.”

Sparks is optimistic for the upcoming season. “Last year we had (Hurricane) Emily in early summer,” a storm carrying 3 to 4 inches of rain and heavy winds that took 20 percent of his crop. But Barring some unforeseen circumstance, he thinks he'll do better this year. “And, you know, I think the market is moving up.”