Once 'King,' cotton farming on a long decline in U.S. south

Tue Nov 17, 2015 10:15am EST
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By Chris Prentice

CLARKSDALE, Miss. (Reuters) - Fields along the Mississippi River Delta once gleamed white in the autumn with acre upon acre of cotton ready to be picked.

But to see the decline of a cash crop once nicknamed "King Cotton" one need look no further than the 300 acres (121 hectares) that Michael Shelton farms in Clarksdale, Mississippi, about 75 miles (120 km) down river from Memphis.

The fields were recently cleared of wheat and soybeans, and just one long row of cotton, which Shelton, 65, said he planted "for memory."

"I wanted to say I planted cotton every year," said Shelton, who is black and whose property includes the 40 acres (16 hectares) his ancestors acquired in the late 19th century, not long after the abolition of slavery.

With cotton prices near their lowest in six years, Shelton is far from alone in cutting back on the crop.

U.S. farmers this year planted the fewest acres of cotton since 1983, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. In the southern states of Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas, once the heart of cotton country, growers expect to harvest some of their smallest crops since the year after the U.S. Civil War ended, according to the oldest government data available.

It's not just low prices driving down cotton planting. This year marks the first the U.S. cotton farmers are getting by without a subsidy program that had long been the subject of a trade dispute between Washington and Brazil.

For Shelton, the only one of eight siblings to go into farming, that is just the latest in a long line of hits his business has taken.   Continued...

An empty and decaying home sits next to a field of cotton in Danville, Georgia October 28, 2015.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder