Roger Sewell slowed his pickup down on a rural section of Pratt County, next to a field gleaming white.
“How’s it look?” he said with a grin, then added this good field of cotton, to be stripped in coming weeks and eventually turned into denim, was his.
Just a few years ago, it was tougher to find a cotton field in these parts. The fledgling industry had been struggling to regain its footing after peaking in acres more than a decade ago. High corn prices and 2,4-D drift were among the culprits causing farmers to shy away from cotton.
But Sewell, who also is the general manager at the newly revamped Next GINeration cotton gin near Cullison, never gave up on Kansas cotton.
And now, as he drove the dirt roadways across Pratt County where you can’t miss the patchwork of fluffy white fields awaiting a cotton stripper, it’s evident others are just as high on cotton as Sewell.
Kansas farmers are poised to harvest a record 185,000 bales this year - a 161 percent jump from last year. And Sewell said next year is expected to be even better as farmers look for alternatives to low-priced corn and wheat.
“Cotton is profitable,” said Sewell. “Our phone is ringing off the wall for next year.”
Kansas is a forgotten notch in the Cotton Belt.
The state, after all, doesn’t have the lengthy history as those to the south. Cotton acres took off in Kansas in the 1990s when a better variety was developed that was more tolerant to the region’s growing season. Meanwhile, the 1995 farm bill with its “Freedom to Farm” provisions made it possible for farmers to plant a variety of crops including cotton to meet demand while still receiving some federal subsidies, according to the Kansas Cotton Association.
Acres continued to grow as farmers searched for something different than their conventional crops that would boost their bottom line.
Four cotton gins were built in about a 10-year period starting with the first one in Winfield in 1996.
Yet after hitting a high of 115,000 acres in 2006, acreage started slipping. Corn prices skyrocketed to record levels. Drift issues continued to harm acres - including in southwest Kansas. In 2010, farmers planted 43,000 acres to cotton. In 2015, acreage dropped to 16,000 acres - a low not seen since the late 1990s when the industry was just getting started.
However, the past few years, cotton has been again gaining momentum, said local farmer Stuart Briggeman, who watched as his nephew, Kyle Briggeman, operated a cotton stripper baler in a field near Cullison on Tuesday.
Briggeman and his wife, Teri, were early proponents of cotton. They started growing it around the turn of the 21st century and have continued to grow their acreage, which now exceeds corn - making cotton their biggest crop.
Last year, the Briggemans, along with Sewell and two other farmer investors, helped augment cotton’s foothold - buying the cotton gin near Cullison and making significant updates to it. They renamed it Next GINeration. And they take the name’s meaning literally as they consider cotton’s future in southern Kansas.
“It’s exciting,” said Briggeman of the industry’s growth, adding it’s not just because he is part owner in the gin. “Commodities are starting to drive more cotton acres and the water issues.”
His irrigated corn crop uses around 16 to 18 inches of water. This year’s cotton crop used just 6 inches.
Briggeman estimated the irrigated field they were cutting on this day averaged four bales an acre, which is above average, he said. Some of his dryland fields yielded 1,000 pounds an acre - or roughly two-bale cotton.
“I’m really pleased with the way this year’s cotton crop has turned out,” he said. “Cotton just works really well here.”
Sewell isn’t the only one seeing the uptick.
All told, Kansas cotton production is forecast at 91,000 acres - up 60,000 acres from 2016 and a 100 percent increase from 2015, according to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service.
Yield is forecast at 976 pounds an acre, down 123 pounds an acre from last year’s phenomenal-yielding harvest.
In the Winfield and Anthony areas - where the state’s first two active gins are located - acreage has at least doubled, said Gary Feist, the longtime manager of Southern Kansas Cotton Growers. In fact, Feist is hoping to expand the gin by next season.
“It’s been tremendous,” he said, later adding. “I think our bales are going to be double from last year.
“It’s taken us a lot of years to get here,” he said of the industry. “But we are finally rolling pretty good.”
The Anthony gin has been operating since mid-October and recently added a second shift.
“I’m hoping we’re done by March,” said Feist of ginning. “We are going to be running a long time. Our yard is pretty dadgum full.”
At Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op Gin at Moscow, which has been struggling with acreage thanks to the drifting of the herbicide 2,4-D, things are “on the triple side of last year,” said office manager Mindy Gillespie.
“We are anticipating 30,000 acres - 50 to 60,000 bales,” she said
Last year, the Moscow facility ginned just under 11,000 bales, Gillespie said.
The struggling farm economy has caused some farmers to consider cotton in southwest Kansas. Also, as the Ogallala Aquifer continues to decline, farmers see cotton as a water-saving crop. Moreover, some farmers were able to secure new varieties resistant to 2,4-D, which will help combat spray drift.
“That has been a tremendous help with our acres,” Gillespie said
A good year
Countless trucks rumbled onto the scales at Next GINeration on Tuesday - going back and forth from the harvested fields hauling in the bales of cotton.
In the next few weeks, the gin will be running two shifts, Sewell said.
Kent Goyen, a farmer from Cairo who has interest in the gin, said he is hopeful for next year. While profitability has driven the recent upswing, this year’s yields are good.
“It’s not last year’s incredible crop, but it’s OK,” Goyen said of last year’s bumper harvest, but added, “It’s still a good year.”