| By John Howell Sr.
Panola’s cotton producers feel like they left much of their crop on the ground or otherwise unpicked, Lent Thomas said last week.
Thomas walked between rows of recently cut stalks where open, fluffy bolls that usually fill cotton pickers’ bins lay instead in the middles. In another field where the stalks waited to be cut, Thomas pointed to the fleecy fibers hanging from stunted bolls. Those bolls never matured sufficiently to open enough to allow the picker’s spindles to pull them free from the plant, he said.
Farm Service Agency (FSA) County Executive Director Kim Billingsley on Wednesday reaffirmed his earlier assessment of the county’s crop loss from back to back hurricanes and extremely dry weather.
By mid-October, the county had received an average of 24 inches of rainfall for 2005, Billingsley said. Panola’s rainfall averages 55 inches per year.
Still, the FSA official says cotton yield "depends on the site." With dry land cotton "if they caught a few timely rains, they did okay," Billingsley said.
William Cole of B and R Crop Insurance determining the extent of crop losses against insurance values is "probably a couple of weeks away."
Most of the cotton has been picked and is in the process of being separated from its seeds at area gins, Cole said. Once ginned, the grading process that follows will determine the crop’s value, the amount against which it has been insured.
"We’ve got a bunch of claims open," Cole said.
Thomas said that winds from Hurricane Rita caused the damage that kept his plants’ upper bolls from maturing.
"The wind turned the leaves upside down on the plant; it made them look they had been defoliated," said Thomas, who has been raising cotton for most of his 70-plus years.
"I’ve never seen the leaves turn upside down," Thomas added.
The top of the plants’ leaves must face sunlight for photosynthesis. When photosynthesis stops, growth stops.
"I’ve had two or three farmers tell me the same thing; it looked like it had been defoliated," Cole agreed.
Compounding the maturity and drought problems were hurricane-generated wind gusts that left stalks askew in its wake. Modern pickers glean their best yields from well-aligned plants, but when operators drove into fields this fall the stalks bent over into middles of rows.
"It was worse in rows planted east and west," Thomas said. Rita’s counter-clockwise rotation brought winds out of the north which bent boll-laden plants. With the mature stalks bent under the weight of foliage and open bolls, subsequent days of dry, sunshiny weather were never able to coax them back upright.
Cotton is not the only local crop with weather-reduced yields, Billingsley said. Soybean farmers are feeling the drought as their combines beat through plants and find fewer beans in the hopper.
Panola rice producers also see yields cut from hurricane-generated winds, Billingsley added.
When Katrina roared through August 29, south Delta rice producers were hit hard because the plants bearing maturing grain were pushed to the ground by the wind. With the grain in contact with the wet ground, the rice started sprouting, Billingsley said.
"I thought ‘wow’ we’ve made it through," Billingsley said of Panola’s rice producers whose crop was not yet at that stage of maturity.
"When Rita came (September 25), our rice was at the level of maturity of the south Delta rice" at Katrina’s passage, he added.