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Cotton Crops Hold Strong Through Tropical Storm Barry’s Deluge. For Now.

After widespread reports of impending devastation, Tropical Storm Barry’s reputation proved mostly bluster. But farmers in some regions of the Cotton Belt (which stretches from the mid-Atlantic across the Gulf Coast and into Texas) aren’t willing to breathe a sigh of relief just yet.

While Barry made landfall in Louisiana on Saturday as a Category 1 hurricane, reports show the weather system was downgraded to a tropical storm within hours. Still, Louisiana has experienced significant flooding, with up to 15 inches of rain in some areas. Cotton crops have evaded the potential damage of hurricane-force winds, though drenched fields could present an issue if the rain persists.

“It’s never helpful to have that much rain all at once, but we’re a little bit early in the season,” said Cotton Incorporated senior economist Jon Devine.

That fact could be what saves this year’s crops, he said.

“Cotton is most vulnerable when the bolls are open, meaning that the fiber is exposed to the elements. So when you have rain and wind, the bolls can get knocked to the ground and become discolored. If that happens, it’s a complete loss,” Devine explained, adding that the plants are currently still closed at this point in the season, and their precious fibers protected from wind and rain.

Barry’s impact won’t be felt in terms of boll loss, according to Devine, though it remains to be seen whether flooding will have a negative effect on the health of the plants. Though the cotton fiber is still in its developmental stages, the plants could potentially wither if they continue to suffocate under inches of water.

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The upside is that cotton is a resilient crop.

“Compared to some of the other crops it has a bigger root system that makes it more tolerant to drought stresses and storms that bring in excess rain,” Devine said, noting that there’s ample time in the growing season for the plants to recover if the weather soon subsides.

The same would not be true if a storm like this occurred in October, near the end of the growth season. Tropical storms like Barry often occur along the East and Gulf Coast during the summer months, but can stretch into the fall.

“It’s been a weird weather across the Cotton Belt,” Devine opined, explaining that states across the Midwest experienced higher than usual rainfall this summer. The residual effects of those storms brought flooding to what Devine calls the “mid-South,” which stretches from Louisiana to Tennessee along the Mississippi River.

“Most of those areas had really heavy rainfall already this year,” he said, adding that Barry’s subsequent deluge “is not going to be helpful to them.”

Still, out of the 13.7 million acres of cotton crops across the U.S., Louisiana’s disproportionately affected fields make up just 2 percent. “The USDA is estimating that Louisiana will have about 260 thousand acres this year,” Devine said. “That’s small compared to Texas, which has 7.2 million acres.”

“You don’t want any farmers to have any problems, but in terms of the amount of cotton compared with other states, it’s not critical,” he said.

And despite the weather challenges, the U.S. is on track for a super-sized crop this year. The USDA is predicting 22 million bales, Devine said, explaining that the U.S. rarely sees crops over 20 million.

“The pressure’s on to see if we’re going to be able to sell those bales with the trade dispute going on,” he added, pointing to what he describes as the biggest hurdle for the industry today. “Those are the bigger issues affecting cotton prices—the storm hasn’t really impacted prices at all.”