Farmers struggling to make profit as price of cotton drops

A cotton field in Cowan, Tenn., is ready for harvest along U.S. Highway 41A in Franklin County.

The days of high cotton are over.

In fact, for farmers across the southeast, these are the days of low cotton.

The crop is at its lowest price in five years, selling for around 60 cents a pound, compared to 88 cents a pound in 2011. With prices like that, farmers will be lucky to break even on this year's crop, according to an analysis by the National Cotton Council of America. Most of them will lose money.

That appears to be especially true in Alabama. On Nov. 12, Gov. Robert Bentley applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for emergency disaster assistance to help cotton farmers in counties hit hard by rain right at harvest time. Rain at the wrong time can delay harvest and allow time for seeds to sprout in the wet cotton before it is picked. When that happens, the value of the cotton drops dramatically.

Standing on the edge of a Baldwin County cotton field, trying to get the last of his crop picked hours before another rain-bearing weather system is supposed to arrive, farmer Mark Mullek was ebullient, despite the slack prices in the market. He said he was grateful "for the chance to farm another year on land my family has worked for 70 years."

"Horrible," he said of the price. "Cotton's an interesting animal.... It will rebound. It's been in a particular sort of slump the last couple of years. It will rebound."

In 2011, the cotton market was at its highest level in a quarter century. Demand in the developing world was growing, and bad weather that year devastated the cotton fields of China and Pakistan, ranked number one and number four in the world for cotton production. The United States ranks third internationally. Cotton prices this year are in a slump due in part to really good crops the last few years.

"The yield this year is good, just not the price," said Mullek. "But it is worth it to still do it. I wouldn't say you are getting rich by doing it. But worth it implies more than the dollar signs at the end of the day. It implies a little bit more about the fabric of our society, and the fabric of our lives. As farmers, you know, even if the prices aren't that great, to grow things that we are eating or wearing, it still needs to get done."

The average acre in the United States yields about 685 pounds of cotton, according to statistics compiled by the National Cotton Council of America. This year, that cotton is selling for about 60 cents a pound. That means each acre is worth about $500 per acre, counting money earned from selling the cotton seeds as well. The problem is, it costs an average of $600 an acre to plant cotton, tend it as it grows, and then harvest tens of thousands of pounds' worth.

Watching the amount of work Mullek's crew does at harvest, and the expensive heavy equipment involved, is eye-opening. Two enormous John Deere 7660 cotton pickers, hulking green goliaths, rake back and forth across the field sucking up cotton in 10-foot-wide swaths. Each machine is worth more than $200,000. A third cotton picker sits idle at the edge of the field. It broke down, slowing the harvest and likely necessitating an expensive repair.

Working in concert with the pickers are the module builders. Mullek's cotton picking machines steadily dumped load after load of picked cotton into the 30-foot long, 12-foot deep metal troughs of the module builders. Then a big metal bar powered by hydraulics slams down on the cotton over and over, compacting it further and further.

If you've ever seen the huge rectangles of cotton sitting on the edge of a just picked field, that was the work of a module builder. Employing the same hydraulic compaction technology as a garbage truck, the module builders are able to mash 22,000 pounds of cotton -- about 30 acres worth -- into a rectangle that will fit on a specially designed trailer. To load the 10-ton bales, a ramp slides down to the ground and the truck driver slowly backs into the cotton, which slides into the trailer.

Sometimes, a spark in the picking machine or the module machine will ignite the cotton. If a burning piece ends up deep inside one of the bales, the whole thing can burn.

"That's when you see the truck going down the road with a big smoldering cotton bale smoking. That's happened this year," Mullek said. "That just happens with cotton. It's not combustible, but it is highly flammable."

Manning all the machines was a team of 6 men, including James Arthur Maye, who has worked these fields for four decades, starting on a crew with Mullek's father.

"I started with Joe when I was 31. That was 42 years ago," said Maye. Even after all these years, he said he liked farming, "Pretty good. Might was well too, it's all I've been after all these years... I don't know. I might be ready to give it up... I've helped harvest. I've helped plant, I've done it all."

Meanwhile, Mullek's brother Tim manned one of the picking machines.

"It's always great to farm out here. I'm looking over there at the house where Dad grew up. The main barn is just down the street a little bit. One of my dad's brothers married Aunt Patsy, who grew up in that house," Mullek said, pointing at a house at the edge of the field. His father's family moved on to this land, "about 70 years ago, from Elberta, a small trek, but with a few hundred head of hogs, it was quite a trek. It was a move that kind of guided a lot of the family business going forward, from the success with potatoes, to now with cotton and peanut crops."

The family farms several plots scattered around Elberta and Loxley. They rotate cotton, soybeans, peanuts, wheat and a few other crops on their land. Standing next to one of the big bales of just-harvested cotton, Mullek patted it and said it represented the work of multiple generations of his family.

"It would make a lot of Q-tips, t-shirts, mattresses, pages in books. Cotton is used in all sorts of stuff now," Mullek said. "It's nice to be out here. Good time of the year to be outside, cooler. Good to be out in the harvest.... It is in my blood. It's part of the family upbringing. A sense of place. It's what we do. We all do other things, but the farming and the land is what keeps us together."