Changing face of Delta cotton farms

“The past several years have seen cotton prices fall to levels not seen in decades,” says Steve Martin, an agricultural economist at Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville “At the same time prices were falling, production costs have continued to increase forcing producers to make many changes in their operations in order to survive,”

Martin, who co-authored the 2002 survey with fellow Mississippi agricultural economists Fred Cooke and David Parvin, says with cotton prices at very low levels and little hope for increased prices in the next marketing year, some producers have made the decision to leave farming.

Those that are sticking with it, he says, are considering alternative crops to cotton, or are beginning crop rotations, or adjusting farm sizes, equipment and inputs in an attempt to maintain a viable income. Producers have also switched to conservation tillage systems to reduce costs and overhead and thus increase net returns.

“The future of cotton production in the Mississippi Delta depends on how farm structure adjusts as government policies, market prices and production costs change,” Martin says.

According to the survey, the trend is toward larger equipment, more acres per farm and more acres per piece of equipment. These larger farms are utilizing less labor than in the past, possibly due to larger equipment.

The trend also appears to be toward a larger percentage of rented farmland rather than owned farmland. Crop distribution on these cotton farms suggests most plant more than 60 percent of their farms to cotton.

The most common farm size appears to be 501-2500 acres followed by farms ranging from 2501-4500 acres.

Nearly 50 percent of the responding farms in 2002 were between 501 and 2,500 acres, while 28 percent were farms of between 2,501 to 4,500 acres, 15 percent from 1 to 500 acres, and 8 percent over 4,501 acres.

On all farm sizes, planted cotton acres in 2002 were reported to be 14 percent lower overall than planted acres in 2001, with the biggest reduction in acreage coming from those farms ranging from 2,501 to 4,500 acres.

Total cotton acres reported by respondents to the 2002 survey were 463,000

“Cotton acres appear to have declined over the last five years. However, a one year snap shot of cotton production acres is not an accurate indicator of planting trends,” says Martin. “Factors such as crop prices, weather and farm programs have influence on planted acres on a year to year basis”

In comparison, the 1977 Census of Agriculture, which only included farms with 320 acres or more, reported an average of 420 acres of cotton per farm, and the 1997 Census reported average cotton acres per cotton farm of 710. Respondents to the 2002 survey reported an average of 1,807 acres per farm.

A survey in the fall of 1977 of the ten “all Delta” counties found approximately 480,000 acres of cotton production in the region, with almost half farming rented land, using an average of 1.9 cotton pickers and 5.3 tractors per farm.

Martin says the percentage of rented land has been increasing over time. In the 1977 study, 49 percent of farmed land was rented, as compared to 62 percent in 1997, and 68 percent in 2002.

“While many factors could contribute to this, it could certainly be said that the percentage of land owned by farmers is decreasing. This has one implication that is rarely mentioned, that is the issue of farm equity,” he says. “Economists will often include a land charge in calculating production costs whether land is rented or owned. However, where producers are facing break-even situations and the land charge is a land payment, some producer land equity is being established. As a larger and larger percentage of farmland is rented, little or no producer land equity is being accumulated.”

Like cotton pickers, tractors per farm are decreasing and acres per tractor are increasing. Unlike pickers, however, several factors could be contributing to this change. Certainly larger tractors are a part of the change. But, wider equipment also plays a role as well as tillage practices. As producers move to reduced/no till production, tractor requirements decrease.

The decrease in tractor requirements is two-fold. Reduced no-till production does not require the horsepower of conventional tillage nor does it require as many trips across the field. As a result, producers have more flexibility in tractor selection and field use of tractors, Martin says.

As would be expected the mainline number of tractors increases as farm size increases. Mainline tractors are defined as those used 250 or more hours per year. As farm size increases, six-row pickers become more common. The same is true for larger planter size. Bigger equipment becomes more prevalent as farm size increases and the total number of planters increases as well.

The 2002 survey results also suggest the average number of full time employees have decreased by over two employees per farm, which might suggest larger equipment or changing production practices.

Full and part-time labor increases as farm size increases. Harvest time required the biggest increase in temporary workers except for those farms, which produced rice. Cotton farms that produced rice required more part-time labor during planting than at harvest.

The survey of 988 Delta cotton producers was conducted in the spring of 2002, and included the Mississippi counties of Bolivar, Coahoma, Humphreys, Issaquena, Leflore, Quitman, Sharkey, Sunflower, Tunica, and Washington. These are often referred to as the ten all “Delta” counties.

Of the almost 1,000 questionnaires mailed to producers, 186 useable questionnaires were returned, and another 70 surveys were returned as no longer farming. Assuming the remaining non-responders were cotton producers, a useable response rate of 20 percent was obtained.

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