Poor cotton harvest doesn’t deter couple

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Houston and Mary Lee’s family has farmed cotton on land west of Floyd for five generations.

By Argen Duncan: Freedom New Mexico

Roosevelt County’s cotton scene has nearly disappeared, and this season’s crop fell below usual amounts, according to two farmers.

Mary and Houston Lee, who live near Floyd, said their fields yielded about a bale and a half of cotton instead of the normal two or three bales. A bale is normally 485 pounds.

The Lees and their son Bruce had about 345 acres of cotton between the two farms this year. They knew of no one else growing cotton in the area.

Mary cited the lack of rain and low groundwater as culprits in the smaller harvest.

“We have wonderful land out here,” she said. “If we just had rain or water, we could grow just about anything.”

Houston said cotton was a huge Roosevelt County crop on and off for 50 years. He and Mary have been growing it at least since they married 53 years ago.

Except for a temporary comeback several years ago, it’s probably been 20 years since the county had a lot of cotton, the Lees estimated. Cotton prices went up for a time and then in 2005 dropped again, and expenses of raising the crop went up, so most farmers in the county stopped growing it, Houston said.

On top of that, with only two mills that make cloth from cotton in the country, Houston said, China is the market for most American cotton. However, China buys cotton from India as well, and a large Indian crop decreases prices for United States farmers.

“Cotton is a beautiful plant, but it’s pretty touchy,” Mary also said.

The crop is sensitive to temperature and lack of water, and Mary recalled an instance when blowing sand destroyed plants a few inches tall in 10 minutes.

With those struggles, why do the Lees keep raising cotton?

“Rotation (of crops), and it takes less water, and also we were hoping that the price would go up some,” Houston said.

Bruce expects to plant a little cotton next year, but otherwise the family may grow more haygrazer, a grass used for feed, Mary said.

Houston said cotton has been grown in the area for at least 60 years. Those decades have seen important changes in how farmers work with the crop.

“The one that has probably made the most impact is Roundup Ready cotton,” Houston said.

The genetically modified seed produces plants resistant to the herbicide Roundup so farmers can use the chemical to kill weeds.

The variety came on the scene around 1999. Without it, Houston said, farmers probably wouldn’t be able to find enough labor to pull the weeds.

The first year the couple was married, Mary said, they hired workers to pick cotton by hand.

Afterwards, they bought a “stripper” machine that pulled the cotton bolls off plants in two rows at once. One person drove the vehicle while another packed the cotton down in the back.

Now, the Lees have three stripper machines that can harvest even more rows and require only a driver. Houston said the modern gathering equipment increases the amount of cotton farmers can raise by allowing them to harvest more quickly.

The drop in cotton production has also decreased the availability of gins in the area.

Roosevelt County once had four cotton gins, but now it has none, Houston said. The nearest gin is in Farwell, Texas.

“They haul our cotton about 75 miles to Maple (Texas),” Houston said.

The Maple gin is less expensive because it operates as a cooperative, as opposed to the private Farwell gin, Mary explained.