]Depressed prices and rain have caused a more than 30 percent drop this year in the land area planted to cotton in Arkansas.
Experts at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research and Extension estimated that fewer than 200,000 acres of cotton were planted this market year— the lowest number of acres in Arkansas' cotton growing history. The previous low was reached in 2013 when about 310,000 acres of the once plentiful Arkansas crop were planted.
"Absolutely, positively no doubt we're at an all-time low. We shattered our old low," extension cotton agronomist Bill Robertson wrote in a news release from the Division of Agriculture.
Extension economist Scott Stiles said Thursday that about 10 percent of the drop was because of heavy rain and moderate agricultural flooding that kept some farmers from planting the last of their cotton crops.
But about 90 percent of the drop in cotton acres was due to declining per pound prices. In one year, the contract price dropped from an 84-cent peak to a high of less than 67 cents per pound.
"The price has been under pressure for a lot of reasons. The world inventories of cotton have doubled between 2010 and 2014 and that's due to cotton policies in China," Stiles said.
He said China had changed its policies recently, but it could take years for that change to have a significant impact on U.S. prices. And even then, he said, the prices being offered for corn and soybeans are so much higher than the prices offered for cotton that farmers might not revert back to the crop that built the Arkansas Delta.
In the meantime, Stiles said less cotton means fewer running gins and fewer warehouses dedicated to storing the crop. The state had 35 cotton gins in 2014, down from 86 in 2000, he said.
Brenda Dawson, 72, grew up in Newport, 90 miles northeast of Little Rock, growing cotton and rice. She worked in a gin for a short time and also worked for what would eventually become the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Nearly every farmer in the county had cotton. We had 400 or 500 acres, and we always had people working for us because you had to with cotton," Dawson said. "We had 10 houses out there and all of them were full of tenants... Cotton was the thing that kept everybody living."
In 1930, Arkansas' peak production year, the state harvested about 3.49 million acres of cotton. By 2006, that number had dropped to 1.16 million acres.
"The Arkansas Delta was a lot of hardwood timber until the 1930s when flood control came along," said Tommy Wilson, the community outreach coordinator for the Memphis Cotton Museum. "After the timber companies clear cut and drained the land, you would grow cotton. A lot of the big houses and a lot of the towns in the Arkansas Delta are there because of cotton."
Wilson, who grew up in McCormick about 130 miles northeast of Little Rock, said he remembers a sea of cotton that "really did look like snow for as far as you could see." He said when he drives home now those fields are full of soybeans and corn.
"In some ways it's sad, but it's a sign of the times," Wilson said.