Sporadic rains the past few weeks have done little to improve the outlook for the Lower Rio Grande Valley's 2002 cotton crop.

Both irrigated and dryland fields are suffering from extreme heat, a lack of water and plant-choking, naturally occurring salts in the soils.

To add insult to already injured farmers, cotton growers will receive record low prices for any cotton they manage to harvest this year.

John Norman, a cotton IPM entomologist at the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, said while some irrigated cotton fields look good and are sporting healthy fruit loads, most irrigated cotton is shorter in physical stature than normal and will produce less cotton than normal.

“Some irrigated fields are already blooming at the top of the plant, meaning those plants will produce no more this year, regardless of how much rain or irrigation they receive between now and harvest time in mid-July and early August,” he said.

Norman said very few dryland cotton fields responded to recent rainfalls. “Rains simply came too little too late for the majority of dryland fields,” he said. “Some dryland fields that have managed to hold on are short and still harvestable, but those are the minority.”

Rainfall would help leech soils of salt build-up from irrigation water and heat, and plants may even respond with significant growth, but the majority of plants have matured beyond their ability to respond to any amount of moisture.

“Rain would help tremendously the overall agricultural situation here in the Valley in terms of salt depletion,” Norman said, “but as far as cotton is concerned, regardless of how much it rains, we're still looking at a less than average crop year.”

Drought also has taken its toll on the size of the Valley's cotton crop. This year's crop is estimated at only 200,000 acres of cotton planted, compared to 245,000 in 2000 and 215,000 in 2001.

The ratio of irrigated to dryland acreage has also flip-flopped in the past three to four years from 70 percent irrigated and 30 percent dryland, to only 30 percent irrigated this year.

“Fewer irrigated acres means lower yield potential and lower crop disaster insurance returns since returns are much higher for a lost irrigated crop than for a lost dryland crop,” Norman said.

“Irrigated fields provide both improved yields and better insurance protection, but because of our drought and lack of irrigation water, the majority of our crop is now on dryland fields, many of which will not be harvested, but simply plowed under.”