October 12, 2017
Richard Niemann finished the cotton harvest on his southeastern Texas farm the day before Hurricane Harvey hit. This was no ordinary harvest; it was record-setting. The biggest in a decade.
At the time of the hurricane, the U.S. crop was predicted at 20.5 million bales – a 20 percent increase over last year. Niemann was depending on it. Grain prices were low. He needed the additional cotton to cover the costs on his 3,000-acre farm.
As the wind picked up and the clouds moved in, Niemann and his two farm employees moved cotton modules to high ground with the hopes of keeping them out the flooding rain. Other farmers were doing the same.
The cotton harvest was so big, the gin yards were already full. Cotton modules lined the roadsides. Everyone was just waiting for their cotton to be ginned – waiting for the chance at a good yield after years of hard times.
But Hurricane Harvey was about to change all that.
“You had knots in your stomach because you just knew what was coming,” Niemann says. “And you knew it would be bad.”
He explained the “gut punch” of having a whole year’s worth of work wiped out like this:
Farmers in southeastern Texas had stored a record-setting amount of cotton on their land while they waited for gins across the region to catch up.
The storm’s 130 mph winds blew cotton for miles. Cotton covered trees, fence posts and railings like a blizzard.
Traditional modules, designed to hold more than a dozen bales, were ripped apart or blown away.
The round modules, by themselves, fared better and tended to hold together when they didn’t roll. When they did roll, they ended up in ditches full of water – ruining them for ginning.
Niemann lost a third of his crop. About half of it was in the yard at the cotton gin just waiting to be processed.
Now, the storm has him thinking back to what his father told him about farming.
Niemann’s family has farmed in southeastern Texas going back to his great grandparents, who came to the area from Germany.
“My dad, he warned me against farming,” he says. “He said it’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet and I don’t think this is something you ought to get into.”
But agriculture was in Niemann’s blood. He taught school for 5 years and coached after college. When his dad’s foreman quit, he asked to come back to the farm.
‘Rolling the dice’
The storm, Niemann believes, is a devastating reminder of the huge risks farmers take in growing the food and fiber needed to feed and clothe the world.
“Farming is already a big gamble,” he says. “We are already rolling the dice. The profit margin on a farm is so small on a good year, and it can be so big of a loss on a bad year, that it’s hard to make up any ground.”
Harvey is also a reminder to lawmakers as they debate the 2018 Farm Bill, which legislates crop insurance and other farm policies. Niemann says those tools, including making cotton eligible for the full complement of farm bill programs, will be essential for farmers as they dig out after this crippling hurricane season.