FARM SCENE: North Carolina a leader as cotton production rises

Monday, May 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GASTON, N.C. (AP) _ In the 150 years the Grant family has been farming cotton, its members have often watched the price fluctuate. But the latest downturn was protracted, making the current boom all the more welcome.

With prices down for corn and soybeans, and fewer acres planted in tobacco, more than 1 million acres of cotton will be planted this year in North Carolina.

That's 13 percent more than last year and the most since 1937, when the life-sapping boll weevil pushed production into a decline that bottomed out at about 45,000 acres in the '70s.

Cotton prices are low _ down from an average 77 cents a pound in 1995 to less than 50 cents a pound now _ but the crop is still a better option for many farmers, said economist Kent Lanclos of the National Cotton Council in Memphis, Tenn.

``There's a greater certainty you can produce a decent if not outstanding crop than you can with corn or soybeans,'' Lanclos said. ``Cotton is less risky.''

North Carolina's cotton-producing peak was in 1926, when farmers planted 1.8 million acres. By comparison, Texas is now the country's largest producer with about 6 million acres.

In the Cotton Belt that stretches from Virginia to California, farmers will plant some 15.6 million acres of cotton this year, up from 14.6 million last year.

The Grants grew eight acres of tobacco along with peanuts and cotton on their 1,300 acres until this year. Now it's just peanuts and cotton.

``The (tobacco) acreage had gotten so small, it's more of a nuisance,'' Marshall Grant, 76, said. The federal government sets quotas each year on how much tobacco farmers are allowed to grow, and those quotas have been declining because of lower consumption and increased foreign imports.

Marshall's son David, 47, heads the family operation. Cotton isn't replacing tobacco, once the state's leading farm commodity, but it's helping because it's got more profit potential, he said.

Cotton ranks sixth in cash receipts in the state, behind poultry, hogs, greenhouse crops, tobacco and turkeys.

The surge in cotton production means more cotton gins _ the huge machines that separate the cotton fiber from the seed _ are being built and suppliers are finding more work. Across a field from Grant's house, a new cotton storage warehouse was built by the local cooperative to house the faintly sweet bales of cotton that emerge from their gin during the fall harvest.

During his years farming the flat fields surrounding his white clapboard house, Marshall Grant emerged as a leader in the nationwide effort to wipe out the boll weevil. He pushed the state Legislature to require cotton farmers to pay into a fund to stamp out the boll weevils, which burrow into the cotton plant and suck the sap that nourishes the cotton fibers.

Aerial spraying in the $100 million-a-year program began in the 1980s, and it's a fight that's still going on in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, says Marshall Grant, a board member of the Southeastern Boll Weevil Eradication Program. The bug is considered eradicated in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Despite ups and downs in prices, cotton is getting popular among growers, as shown by a doubling in active sales contracts to 800 this year, said Mike Quinn, president of the Carolinas Cotton Growers Cooperative. The co-op sells cotton for farmers in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

``It's supplementing tobacco,'' Quinn said. ``There's no crop that takes the place of tobacco in profitability per acre. With tobacco acreage having been cut, they will come back and supplement with cotton.''