The cotton crop is off to its best start since 1988 in the Rio Grande Valley, giving South Texas farmers a reason to feel optimistic about their prospects after coming off a tough year in 2002.

“We've had a good spring and it's past replanting time,” says Sam Simmons of Harlingen. He and other South Texas producers toured the offices of Cotton Incorporated in Cary, N.C., recently, where the Southwest Farm Press caught up with them.

An April hailstorm knocked down some of the stand, but overall the crop is off to a good start.

Producers in the Rio Grande Valley shoot to have their crop planted in early February to make the crop by September. Last year, late plantings as well as a rainfall deficit, a fourth of the normal amount, hurt yields. Growers in the area had the second lowest bale production level on record.

The irrigated crop suffered because growers couldn't get water from Mexico. Simmons produced a little more than 1 bale of cotton to the acre.

“This year I'm much more optimistic,” he says. “This is best start we've had since 1988.”

Mark Willis of Raymondville is another producer who's off to a good start. The April hailstorm took out about 100 acres of cotton on his operation, but the soil moisture levels are good.

On the down side, boll weevils earlier in the year were being trapped in larger numbers than they were last year. Simmons says he sprays 12 times in the irrigated crop.

Despite the problems with rainfall, Willis had a good year last season, producing yields of more than 2 bales per acre under irrigation. He grows 2,500 acres of cotton.

Willis says he doesn't watch the markets like he used to. “At 65 cents, you don't have any LDP,” he says. He grows grain sorghum in rotation with cotton.

cyancy@primediabusiness.com