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Slump Over : King Cotton Back as Top Dixie Crop

October 13, 1987|DAVID TREADWELL | Times Staff Writer

CHUMUCKLA, Fla. — Copeland Griswold wades joyfully into a field of cotton that spreads like a vast snowbank against the backdrop of oak and pine on his Florida Panhandle farm. Overhead, in a picture of perfect cotton-picking weather, the mid-morning sun burns hot and bright in an achingly blue sky.

"I love this plant," says Griswold, 55, an unabashed smile playing on his tanned, weathered face. "I love to feel it, to play in it, to wallow in it and wonder what the poor folks are doing."

Griswold hasn't always felt so good about the fluffy white fiber. Back in the 1960s, he was among the ever-growing number of farmers in the "Old Plantation" South who got out of cotton farming and thought they never would return.

Plagued by boll weevils, bad weather, slumping demand and poor prices, they abandoned the long-time "king" of Dixie agriculture for soybeans, corn and wheat--crops traditionally associated with the Midwestern farm belt.

Couldn't Make Money

"It just got so you couldn't make any money off of cotton," Griswold recalled.

Cotton, as a result, went into a long and pronounced slump from which it seemed it would never recover. In the 1960s and 1970s its acreage fell by almost one-half in the region, which stretches from Arkansas and Louisiana across Mississippi, Alabama, Northern Florida and Georgia, and into Tennessee, the Carolinas and Virginia. Cotton land dropped from 6.6 million acres to 3.4 million while land devoted to soybeans, corn and wheat climbed from 17 million acres to more than 28 million.

In recent years, however, cotton has had a dramatic reversal of fortune as a combination of factors has helped restore its potential for profit.

Growing Demand

Among these are:

--Growing demand for cotton products--especially among members of the "baby-boom" generation.

--The 1985 federal farm bill, which is credited with making U.S. cotton competitive in world markets and bolstering cotton prices while setting government subsidies to cotton farmers on a downward path.

--New agricultural technology, including computers that can simulate plant growth and tell a particular cotton farmer when to plant, fertilize, irrigate and harvest.

--Widespread boll weevil eradication campaigns. The weevil is a small grayish insect with a long beak whose larvae, when hatched in the immature bolls of cotton plants, destroys the boll. It has now been completely eliminated in Virginia and the Carolinas, and multimillion-dollar eradication programs were launched this year in Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

Cotton growing has also become increasingly attractive because of the mounting difficulties Southern farmers have faced in turning a profit on soybeans and grains. Because these crops grow better in the Midwest, the South is at a disadvantage when, as in recent years, supplies are high and prices are low.

California, Arizona and West Texas have long been important cotton-producing areas, but the resurgence of cotton planting is taking place mainly in the area where cotton first made its mark, the "Old Plantation" South.

Farmers here are returning to their agricultural roots in a big way, heavily investing in cotton farming equipment and planting cotton in fields that, in many cases, haven't nurtured a cottonseed in decades.

Of course, no one expects cotton ever to return to the days when it dominated Southern agriculture to the virtual exclusion of every other crop--covering more than 17 million acres in white blossoms--and dictated the social and political as well as the economic life of Dixie.

But, as Earl Sears, executive vice president of the Memphis, Tenn.-based National Cotton Council said: "Cotton is on the offense as never before. There's new life in the old crop."

In the Carolinas, for example, total cotton acreage has soared by nearly 67% in the past four years, going to 215,000 acres this year.

In Georgia over the same period, cotton plantings jumped an even more dramatic 117% to 260,000, while the state's soybean crop, estimated at 850,000 acres this year, is down 32% from 1986--its third straight year of sharp decline.

And here in Florida, where cotton farming was virtually extinct in 1979 when a mere 3,000 acres were planted, farmland in cotton production has since climbed to 25,000 acres--an increase of more than 800%.

Gets Back Into Game

Among the expanding Florida cotton lands are the 1,250 acres farmed by Griswold in Santa Rosa County, the heart of Florida's cotton belt, north of Pensacola. Griswold got back into the game three years ago, investing more than $500,000 in two giant mechanical cotton pickers, two spray rigs, two tractors and 20 screened trailers to haul picked cotton from the fields to the gin.

His first cotton crop covered only a modest 200 acres, but the yields, he says, were big enough to "set you afire" and the cotton fetched an average of $600 an acre. That was incentive enough for him to expand his cotton acreage until it now makes up half of the 2,500 acres he farms in partnership with his two sons.

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