West Texas farmer Rex Kennedy lost his entire 10,000 acres of cotton this year after more than a year of virtually no precipitation, but he’s still praying for rain even after giving up on this year’s crop. 

Now he’s fighting to keep the dry winds near Lubbock from taking away his soil in the hopes that a rainy September will replenish the subsoil that’s been sucked so dry that even irrigation couldn’t sustain his cotton this year.

“We’ve got to have rain, but as far as this crop, not so much,” he said. “Rain will help put land up next year and start building back subsoil moisture.”

Kennedy, who’s been growing cotton for more than three decades, says this is the first time he’s ever had to abandon irrigated crops.

Key to the failure that’s hit Texas farmers so hard this year was a lack of precipitation last fall, said Kara Bishop, director of communication for Plains Cotton Growers, Inc. 

“For a lot of people who normally see 18 inches of rain in a year, they’ve had three inches in the last 300 days,” she said. “A lot of people lost their dry land acres because there’s just no rain.”

But even many farmers that irrigate some or all of their land — like Kennedy — lost it all.

“Even with irrigated crops you have to have rain supplementation because you’ll run out,” said Bishop. “You’ll be pumping air pretty quickly if all you do is irrigate. You got to have some rainfall to help the irrigation, especially out here in West Texas.”

Some areas of Texas did get a lot of rain earlier this week, but local reports indicate most of it was in Central Texas. There was even flooding in Dallas. Kennedy says he knows some farmers that it may benefit, but he stressed that it’s too little and too late for most.

West Texas is the biggest cotton-producing region of the state and Texas is the largest cotton state in the country. Those facts were both evident in the August edition of USDA’s World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report.

American farmers planted 12.48 million acres of cotton this year — about half a million more than last year — but they’re only expected to harvest 7.13 million acres because of “historically high abandonment in the Southwest,” USDA said in the report, which was the first survey-based forecast for cotton this year.

And on the farms that do harvest, poor yields are widely expected. The average, USDA estimates, will be 846 pounds per acre, down from 870 last year.

The dismal expectations for this fall’s harvested area, together with low yields, means the U.S. is expected to produce just 12.6 million bales of cotton. That would be the lowest output in more than a decade and drop ending stocks for the 2022-23 marketing year to just 1.8 million bales. The stocks-to-use ratio, USDA said, would be the lowest since the 1925-25 marketing year.

As bad as the national figures look, it’s worse in Texas, says Bishop.

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Texas farmers planted about 4.3 million acres of cotton this year and state industry experts are predicting about 1.8 million acres will be harvested, Bishop said.

The sight of barren fields is everywhere when driving through the High Plains, but often a green section comes into view, Bishop said. She said she heard an integrated pest management extension specialist call them “islands of green and stressed it’s an apt description. There are now just little patches of green where it used to be everywhere, she said.

Kennedy says he's planning to plant winter wheat in the next few weeks, but not for a marketable crop. He says he just wants to keep the soil until next year’s cotton planting season.

A lot of farmers are in that position, said Bishop.

“It doesn’t mean they’re going to profit off winter wheat if they sow it because it’s dry out there,” she said. “But it might be able to protect their fields from blowing dirt.”

September rains would be great, said Kennedy, but he stressed he is counting on April or May precipitation.

“We are all prayerfully hoping we’ll get back into the normal cycle,” said Kennedy. “We went through drought in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and started getting out of it in 2014. We’re certainly hoping we’re not in another drought cycle like that.”

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