North Carolina cotton acreage has come full circle

Cause and effect has driven cotton in the Carolinas for as long as anyone can remember. Again, it's partly responsible for nudging North Carolina growers over the million-acre mark for the first time since 1937. North Carolina farmers intend to plant 1.05 million acres of cotton this year, according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, Ag Statistics Division.

The boll weevil claims responsibility for the first decline in cotton acreage in North Carolina and figures heavily in bottoming it out. The all-time high cotton acreage in North Carolina was 1.8 million in 1926, according to Boll Weevil Eradication in the United States Through 1999, a soon-to-be-published book in the National Cotton Council's series on cotton.

Cotton in North Carolina had its second drop off in the late 1950s and early 1960s. During that time, much of the South moved toward mechanization. North Carolina farmers led the nation in the percentage of acres handpicked.

When the Boll Weevil Eradication Program came to North Carolina in the early 1980s, it started a slow-moving cotton revival of sorts, says Keith Edmisten, North Carolina State University cotton specialist.

It allowed farmers to eliminate the frequent use of insecticides formerly used to control the boll weevil and make more money on the crop. North Carolina currently ranks fifth among cotton-growing states.

The uncertainty of tobacco gave producers another cause and effect scenario that led to cotton in less-traditional areas, Edmisten says. “It gave them a solid chance at making a profit on a second crop behind tobacco.”

No-till and technology advances such as Roundup Ready cotton have also played roles in either bringing cotton back to areas where the boll weevil forced its departure or opening up new areas to the crop.

The cotton cycle

In North Carolina, as in many Southeastern states, cotton holds sway in the cultural and economic affairs of farmers. Even the name of the Farm Presses' “High Cotton Award” conjures up the image of good economic times; so strong is the tradition of cotton in the psyche of the Southeastern farmer.

Million acre cotton numbers in North Carolina first dotted the landscape in 1881 and disappeared like topsoil on hilly land in 1937. But cotton still had a place in the hearts of North Carolina farmers.

“In the 1920s and 1930s, there was a lot of cotton in the Piedmont and there were even some counties growing cotton that most would consider mountain counties,” Edmisten says. “These would be counties like Polk, Rutherford, Burke, Caldwell, Alexander and Wilkes.” Today, as evidence of this, there are a lot of abandoned gins that serve as storage sheds.

Top group

In the early 1920s, Robeson, Halifax and Cleveland were in the top group — 65,000 to 92,000 acres. Cumberland, Edgecombe, Franklin, Harnett, Iredell, Mecklenburg, Nash, Northhampton, Scotland, Sampson, Wake and Wayne were in the second-tier group with 50,000 to 65,000 acres.

Eastern North Carolina counties such as Beaufort grew as much as 25,000 acres of cotton during the period and drew from the well of the cotton economy.

The top 10 cotton-producing counties in 1999 were, in order of number of bales produced, Northampton, Halifax, Martin, Bertie, Edgecombe, Lenoir, Sampson, Pitt, Robeson and Gates.

One characteristic dominated this production: Small fields.

Even today, the average size of a cotton field in North Carolina is 14.8 acres, Edmisten says. In the early 1960s, as cotton pickers were driving on to the market, North Carolina had the highest percentage of cotton still being picked by hand. “The small size of the fields didn't lend itself to mechanization,” Edmisten says.

By the mid-1960s, mechanization had lowered the acreage level another rung.

1978 bottom

The fall in acreage, however, continued. It hit bottom at 42,000 acres in 1978.

It was a full 10 years later, before farmers began to reap the benefits of the BWEP. Cotton soon began the same methodical climb back up the acreage ladder as it had once descended. In 1988, acreage inched over 100,000. In 1991, it hit 475,000. Since the mid-1990s, it's fluctuated between 700,000 and 900,000.

Improved cultural practices and varieties have increased alongside the acres. In the former heyday of cotton, a good yield was 300 pounds per acre. Most years, farmers had yields in the 200-pound range, in spite of the huge acreage. The 10-year average since 1991 in North Carolina is 664 pounds of lint per acre, Edmisten says.

“Since we've gotten to the 700,000 to million-acre range, cotton has been in a solid place as the second most important crop in North Carolina,” Edmisten says.

“Eliminating the boll weevil was very important to us,” Edmisten says. “The second thing that has recently had a big impact on the increase in cotton acreage is tobacco farmers looking for a solid second crop and an alternative to growing corn.”

Cotton has made its way into solid tobacco areas such as Lenoir and Pitt counties. Effective herbicides and Roundup Ready cotton has also made cotton a profitable commodity in the Blacklands of eastern North Carolina.

Cotton hasn't returned to the mountains or the northern Piedmont, but it has come back to the southern Piedmont. There, the farms are larger and less dependent on tobacco. “Farmers in the southern Piedmont have figured out how to grow cotton no-till,” Edmisten says.

“The old saying among farmers in the Piedmont was that cotton robbed the soils. It really wasn't cotton that robbed the soils but the way we grew cotton that allowed the topsoil to erode. No-till allows farmers to grow cotton on hilly land with little loss of topsoil.”

Full circle

Cotton has come full circle in North Carolina. Rebounding from a low of 42,000 acres in 1978, cotton is now grown on an estimated 1.05 million acres this season.

While the acreage doesn't approach the 1.8 million mark of 1926 — and probably never will — in some ways the crop has become a more important economic factor than it was in its previous heyday. It has added another potential moneymaker to the mix.

In a sense, the boll weevil, mechanization and technology caused the decline of cotton and its resurrection of acreage in North Carolina. The boll weevil caused the initial decline in cotton acreage. The BWEP paved the way for cotton's rebirth in the state. Mechanization caused the second decline in acreage and ultimately — along with cultural, chemical and variety innovations — allowed North Carolina farmers to increase cotton acres.

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