Chris Petrunic was a happy man on a recent Friday afternoon, looking forward to wrapping up harvesting his cotton crop. He and his brother, James, have about 200 acres of cotton on their place just south of Autaugaville.
"We should be done this afternoon," he said with a big smile. "The good Lord willin' and the creek don't rise."
He's expecting a good crop.
"The price is way down, about 60 cents a pound. That's half of what it was during our last real good year in 2008," he said. "We're cautiously optimistic. The price is down, but everything else is up — fertilizer, diesel fuel — so we just have to make more cotton.
"I'm very pleased with what we are seeing so far. It's farming. It could be better, but it could be a lot worse, too."
The cotton harvest in central Alabama is expected to run through mid-November. And getting the crop out of the field is just half the work. The few gins left in the area will be running full bore through December.
MADH gin in Statesville recently went to running 24 hours a day.
"They can pick it a lot faster than we can gin it, that's for sure," said David Lingle, the ginner at MADH.
Estimates are calling for average yields of about 850 pounds to the acre, said Mary Johnson of the Alabama Farmers Federation.
"We really are a week or two behind where we should be," she said. "Some producers haven't gotten into the fields because recent rains have made some fields too wet to work. But the weather forecast couldn't be better for the next week or two.
"It looks like an extended period of dry weather, which is just what you need to get a crop in. Everyone is optimistic it will be a good year. It won't be a record year, but it looks like a good year."
King Cotton long ago lost its crown in Alabama as the biggest and most profitable crop. This year, about 340,000 acres were planted compared with about 365,000 acres last year. Acres planted usually fluctuates 30,000 to 45,000 acres a year due to production costs, the market, overseas competition and crop rotation schedules of the farmers, Johnson said.
When cotton production was at its zenith, every crossroads town seemed to have a gin. Cotton gins separate the fluffy fiber from the seeds and press the cotton into bales for transport to spinning plants. Now, there are five gins operating in central Alabama located in Clanton, Holtville, Tallassee, Shorter and Statesville.
The MADH gin is putting in a new seed warehouse, and at the end of last season made equipment upgrades.
"You have to make investments to stay competitive," Lingle said over the high-pitched roar of machinery. "We've added some drying systems in our gin to let us gin wetter cotton and damper cotton. ... We needed the new seed warehouse so we can market our seed better and capture some more of the market."
Cotton seed is a valuable commodity as well, used as feed and pressed to produce high quality oil used in the food and manufacturing industries. Cotton seed oil is even used in cosmetics.
On average nationwide, about 8.2 billion pounds of cotton are produced each year, with a value of about $4.68 billion, according to www.cotton.org, the website for the National Cotton Council of America.
Even though it is no longer king, cotton is a valuable crop in Alabama, ranking fourth in a list of the state's top five commodities, behind poultry, cattle and calves, and greenhouse, sod and nursery products but ahead of peanuts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nationally, Alabama is ranked eighth in cotton production.
Cotton will continue to have a future in Alabama, said Jeff Thompson, executive director of the Autauga Quality Cotton Association. The marketing cooperative was formed in Prattville in 1967 and has grown to more than 1,000 members scattered across nine Southern cotton-producing states from North Carolina to Texas.
"Here in Alabama, cotton is a good dry land crop," he said. "We can grow dry land cotton much better than we can grow dry land corn. And we have varieties now that tolerate dry spells much better. It turned off real dry in August here.
"Cotton tolerates dry weather well, but you have to get rain at certain times. If we had been growing the varieties this year that we were growing 10 years ago, that August dry spell would have meant real problems for producers."
And cotton is an expensive crop to raise. Most producers have long ago purchased the pricey equipment needed to work cotton and are partners or shareholders in the few gins left operating.
A cotton picker will fetch $600,000 new in today's market.
"And that's all that machine does, pick cotton," Thompson said. "Eleven months out of the year it's parked in the barn. Now a combine is just as expensive, but you can use it to harvest wheat, corn, soybeans and other grains.
"So it is an expensive crop to grow, but the market is usually good year in and year out, so we will stay married to cotton in Alabama for a long time."
For the Petrunics, that relationship likely will remain strong as well. The brothers farm about 700 acres, growing cotton and grains and running cattle as well.
"We try to get a good variety of crops each year to spread out the risk," he said. "The cotton and soybean markets aren't where we would like them to be this year, but beef is strong and it will pull us through.
"Who knows, next year beef may be down and cotton may be up. It is what it is."