NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Mississippi appears headed for its second-best cotton yield ever, and still has a chance to set a record.
In neighboring Louisiana, the harvest also is looking good.
But prices are low, especially compared to the record set two winters ago.
With about one-third of Mississippi's crop harvested, U.S. Department of Agriculture figures released Thursday forecast a yield of 1,012 pounds per acre — just seven pounds below the state record.
If the weather cooperates, a record is possible, said Darrin Dodds, cotton expert at the Mississippi State University Agricultural Extension Service.
"It all depends on the next two to three weeks," he said. "We need it to be dry for about three weeks, when if we've got any defoliating to do, we can do it, and keep the pickers going nonstop until we get done."
Cotton is defoliated before mechanical pickers go into the field.
The USDA's forecast of 960 pounds per acre in Louisiana would be the state's third-highest yield.
But farmers won't be getting even half the price of February 2011, when prices rose to a record of more than $2 per pound.
"This year, as we were looking at starting the crop, it was just below a dollar. It fell pretty precipitously throughout the growing season" and has hovered around 70 to 80 cents a pound for the past couple of weeks, said economist John Michael Riley of the Mississippi State University Agricultural Extension Center.
Dodds said he hadn't expected such a productive harvest earlier this year. Although the warm winter and spring let farmers plant early, growth was threatened by a hot, dry June followed by wet, cloudy weather that caused bolls to fall off the plants in some parts of the state, he said. He'd been skeptical at first of the USDA's September forecast of 991 pounds per acre.
Now, he said, "most folks I've talked to are pretty happy with the crop they're picking."
About one-third of Mississippi's crop and just over two-thirds of Louisiana's was in by Oct. 7.
Hurricane Isaac, which struck in late August, went far enough west to have little effect in Mississippi, Dodds said. In Louisiana, it reduced the crop about 5 percent, said John Barnett, northeast region director for the LSU AgCenter.
"Most of the cotton was far enough north that it did not have a serious effect on it," and the cotton itself was at a stage that wasn't severely damaged by the heavy rains, Barnett said.
Like farmers in the other 15 states where cotton is grown, those in Louisiana and Mississippi cut the number of planted acres this year.
"For about 10 years now we've had a steady decline in cotton acreages," Barnett said. "It's been replaced by corn and soybeans."
Corn and soybean prices have been rising, and cotton is much more expensive to grow, Barnett said.
Riley said cotton prices spiked during the winter of 2010-11 because drought in India had cut global supplies. The global supply has risen, and a shaky global economy has cut demand, reducing prices, he said.
"A customer can put off purchases of a T-shirt much more easily than they can put off purchases of grocery items, so cotton typically is much more responsive to events in the economy," he said.