Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Close to Reclaiming Its Crown as King of Crops . . . Cotton Boom Busts Crisis Couldn't Have Come at a Worse Time

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Close to Reclaiming Its Crown as King of Crops . . . Cotton Boom Busts Crisis Couldn't Have Come at a Worse Time

Article excerpt

ALBANY -- Cotton, a boom crop that has made millions for Georgia farmers since the early 1990s thanks to the eradication of the boll weevil, has gone bust.

The Asian economic crisis and China's decision last year to flood world markets with its surplus cotton has caused prices to drop to about 48 cents per pound, 17 cents below what it costs Georgia farmers to produce it. A few years ago, it was selling for more than 80 cents per pound.

"Cotton is selling for less than half what it was two years ago. . . . It doesn't take a genius to see that we have problems," said Tommy Irvin, Georgia's commissioner of agriculture for 30 years. "If we don't get some help, it's going to bankrupt a lot of people."

Terrell Hudson, a Dooly County grower with 1,100 acres of irrigated cotton, said effects of the slump are being felt throughout Georgia's rural economy.

With the explosion of cotton acreage starting in the late 1980s, farmers, ginners and warehouse owners geared up to handle huge crops. Gins popped up in cow pastures. Farmers rushed out and purchased $200,000 cotton pickers.

Now they're left with huge debts.

"We've got a lot of people in very, very precarious financial positions right now, not just the farmers," said Hudson, who also is a Dooly County commissioner.

He said major cotton seed companies have laid off workers, a couple of cotton gins may go into receivership and others have had to form cooperatives, or consolidate with other businesses to survive.

"Who's affected?" he asked. "It's down to those businesses that everybody depends on, like gas stations, hardware stores and right on down to what used to be a five and dime."

After the demise of the boll weevil, a bug that forced many farmers to switch to other crops, it appeared cotton was ready to reclaim its crown as the king of Southern crops.

Those who geared up for cotton are surprised that it could tumble so low so quickly.

"Cotton has always been an up and down commodity, but there were never such volatile swings as we're seeing now," Hudson said.

Mark Lange, director of economic services for the Memphis-based National Cotton Council, said cotton took its first big hit a little over a year ago because of the Asian crisis. …

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