Isle of Wight lost a third of entire cotton yield in 2016

hismith@dailypress.com

Isle of Wight County lost one-third of its entire cotton crop in 2016, mainly due to extreme amounts of rain that drenched the area in September and October, experts said.

The Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors voted last week to ask Gov. Terry McAuliffe to declare the county an agriculture disaster area, which would enable farmers to apply for low-interest emergency loans. Cotton thrives in dry heat and the crop has done well in the county, according to Rex Alphin, farmer and chairman of the Board of Supervisors. So this year, after Hurricane Matthew, farmers were shocked to see how much cotton was actually lost, Alphin said. The total loss was estimated at $2.4 million.

"I think farmers were very much surprised," Alphin said by phone. "We didn't realize how bad it was until we got into the fields. A lot of farmers live and die on cotton – this is going to be a very difficult year for them."

Alphin planted 150 acres of cotton on his 1,400 acre farm on River Run Trail, and lost roughly half of that. A lot of farmers fall back on crop insurance, but can't live off the insurance year after year, he said.

Spencer Neale, secretary of the Virginia Cotton Grower's Association and Virginia Farm Bureau employee, said crop insurance reimburses the farmers for lost crops, but doesn't assist with quality-related loss.

"Crop insurance doesn't always make you whole, as they say," Neale said by phone. "The issue's been dealing with yield coupled with quality – it's been a very bad year."

Johnny Parker, who's worked at the Commonwealth Gin in Windsor for 20 years, said the average cotton yield in the county is about two bails per acre, or roughly 1,100 pounds. This year projects to be roughly 670 pounds per acre, Neale said.

Parker believes the county lost a large chunk — as much as 400 pounds per acre — during a particularly muggy and rainy three-week stretch.

"It's a part of farming, that risk is there," Parker said. "They can plant corn and it will do awful — or peanuts or soybeans — certain things happen that makes every crop have some risk associated with it."

Despite this year's disappointing yield in cotton, farmers are hopeful about the crop.

"Farmers have a way of having good foresight," Parker said. "They don't just look at one year, they have a lot of experience. Cotton has been such a good commodity — it fits our area so well."

He predicts cotton growth for 2017, and said farmers have said they're looking to expand their cotton acreage next year.

"A lot of farmers have machinery they've invested to grow cotton," he said. "Cotton's not going away any time soon."

Smith can be reached by phone at 757-510-1663.

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