Cotton crop disappoints farmers

Published 10:02 pm Monday, October 10, 2011

Cotton is nearly ready for the harvest all over Suffolk, including this boll in a field near Whaleyville. Farmers are reporting that what was expected to be an excellent harvest was dampened by heavy rains, and yields are now expected to be about average.

After a season of anticipating what looked to be an excellent cotton crop, Suffolk farmers are finding that the yield is nothing like they expected.

“It’s really heartbreaking to think you’re going to have a good crop, and then sit here and watch it die,” said Shelley Barlow of Cotton Plains Farm in Chuckatuck. “It looked like it was going to be a really excellent crop, and now it looks like it’s going to be about average.”

Heavy rains just as the bolls were beginning to open damaged much of the Barlows’ crop.

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“All that horrible rain is what’s really done a lot of damage for us,” she said.

The excessive moisture leads to a condition known as “hardlock,” when the cotton never fluffs out of the boll and drops to the ground, where harvesting equipment cannot get to it.

“The boll cracks open, but the cotton never fluffs out to what you’d hope to see,” she said. “That’s caused by the water getting into the boll as it’s opening. When you get that day after day of rain and no sunshine and no wind, they just fall on the ground.”

Winds from Hurricane Irene also tangled some of the crop, but that’s not as big a concern as the water damage, Barlow said.

The area has received roughly 31 inches of rain since Irene on Aug. 27, and those soggy conditions have had a negative impact on yields, said Chris Drake, agricultural extension agent for Southampton County.

Yields of close to 950 pounds per acre were expected, but the rain has dropped those expectations to about 800 pounds per acre, Drake said.

“Yields are not as good as we thought,” he said. “We had the potential for a record crop, and now you’re looking at a slightly above average crop.”

Commonwealth Cotton Gin opened its Windsor facility for the first time since 2006 in preparation for the harvest.

Barlow said she and her husband, Joseph, picked about 40 acres last week before they had to give the equipment to another farm in Isle of Wight with which they share equipment. They have 400 acres left to go, but rain expected this week likely will hinder the process.

“We’re not really behind, but this crop was fairly early,” Barlow said. “A lot of it’s been sitting in the field, defoliated and waiting.”

“The weather has been the big story all year long,” she added. “It’s been frustrating this season. What else can go wrong?”

—Dale Liesch of The Tidewater News contributed to this story.