Cotton farmers reap high yields - low prices

The Mississippi air is particularly thick with cotton now, giving texture to every breath. Fine weather has produced a bumper crop - now pegged at 15.6 million bales worth $5 billion. Now perfect, sunny days mean that every grower is picking cotton from 9 in the morning when the dew lifts, until late evening when the dew sets down again.

Ironically cotton producers have hurt themselves by doing their job so well. Although the crop is up from last year's 11.1 million bales and the second largest on record, it comes at a time when worldwide economic problems are holding demand down both in the United States and abroad. The result: prices are down to 57 cents a pound compared with 76 cents last year.

For many cotton producers, low returns spell serious problems. Rising oil prices, reflected in what farmers pay out for tractor fuel, irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, and ginning their cotton, have pushed production costs sharply higher. Today a farmer needs to sell one 500-pound bale per acre at 65 cents per pound just to cover his $325 per acre production costs.

Although many delta farmers are harvesting 700 to 900 pounds per acre, prices are low and not all of the crop is likely to be sold.

Times have changed since Ollie Lov grew up picking cotton here by hand. Now he's part of an efficient team operating six of the giant red cotton pickers that are steadily sweeping the cotton fields from Memphis down through Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Times have changed in other ways, too. Not only have highly sophisticated cotton-picking machines, and computer-controlled cotton gins made every aspect of the cotton industry more efficient, but the industry has learned important lessons.

Interviewed in Memphis, National Cotton Council economist Dabney Wellford says he expects the oversupply to be a short-term situation. It will be followed , he says, by ''the greater, long-term problem of how do we meet increasing world demand.''

Mr. Wellford and his colleague, Gaylon Booker, see periods of hard times ahead as production costs continue to climb while large unsold stocks overhang the market. But they also see major research efforts paying off with higher-yielding, higher-quality hybrid cotton and continued success in expanding the export market - which already takes half of US cotton production.

But the greater and most productive change, they say, is the move away from government intervention. In place of government support programs for cotton that cost $1.1 billion as recently as 1970, last year's programs cost $100 million. This cutback came and will continue with the industry's support, says Wellford, because ''we found out from past sad experience that large government payments make you very vulnerable.''

Facing stiff competition from synthetic fibers and foreign cotton producers, Wellford explains, US cotton must survive by turning out a better product at a competitive price - rather than relying on government supports.

James Frazier, production manager for the 7,500-acre Delta and Pine Land Company cotton and grain operation in Scott, Miss., fully supports the industry's switch to self-reliance. For Mr. Frazier, shuttling between his combines harvesting a 45-bushel-per-acre soybean field and a 1.5 bale-per-acre-yield cotton field, success begins with good farming techniques. The payoff, he says, depends on good marketing.

Neighboring Mississippi delta soybean and cotton farmers complain bitterly about being driven deeper into debt by $6.15 a bushel soybean and 57 cents a pound cotton prices. Frazier isn't complaining, he ''forward contracted'' his beans and cotton. This ''locked in'' a price months ago to give him a fair return. Others held back when beans were at $7.50 and cotton at 70 cents. They kept hoping beans would climb to $9 or even $10 a bushel and cotton back to 76 cents a pound.

''Every farmer,'' says Frazier, ''had that same opportunity to forward contract.'' What he doesn't add is that it's only farmers who didn't forward contract and instead held out for higher prices that now are crying out for government help.

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