A Hotter, Drier Climate and Dwindling Water has more Kansas Farmers Taking a Chance on Cotton

Moscow, Kan. — Across the state, small-town grain elevators painted with corn ears and wheat heads stand as monuments to the crops’ economic and cultural significance in rural Kansas.

Cotton gins? They’re a bit harder to come by.

Farmers have grown cotton in Kansas for more than 100 years. But in a state better known for grain and beef, it’s been a challenge for the fluffy fiber to break into the agricultural mainstream.

Yet cotton might be taking hold in southwest Kansas and other parts of the Midwest where temperatures keep climbing and irrigation sources keep declining.

It could help farmers conserve water, weather drought and adapt to a changing climate. And with the arrival of more infrastructure to help people grow it here, cotton’s time in Kansas might finally be coming.

A piece of cotton on the roadside outside the cotton gin

David Condos / Kansas News Service: Small scraps of cotton dot the landscape on the side of the road leading to the Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op in Moscow, Kansas.

At the only cotton gin in western Kansas, the Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op processed nearly 25,000 bales this past year. With room to grow, operations manager Michael Cutchins said the facility can handle as much cotton as Kansas farmers could possibly throw at it.

“Everything’s there,” Cutchins said. “We’re just waiting on the acres.”

The cavernous warehouse opened on the outskirts of Moscow in southwest Kansas three years ago. That’s when the producers who run the co-op invested roughly $13 million to upgrade from their smaller, older gin in the hopes of preparing for the industry’s upward trend.

Inside, metal cylinders covered in spikes spin at a rate of 1,200 rotations per minute. A maze of industrial dryers and saw blades tear, heat and clean the cotton until only the white lint remains.

A man pointing to a piece of cotton gin machinery

David Condos / Kansas News Service: This agitator in one of Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op’s gin stands removes the cottonseed from the lint.

Cutchins opens the casing of a towering gin stand and rests his hand on an agitator roller that helps remove the cottonseed from the fiber.

“It’s good at losing your fingers,” he said, “and it’s good at mulching stuff up.”

Everything’s managed from the central control station — a half-moon-shaped desk covered in screens, knobs and buttons that looks like it could launch a space shuttle.

With a snaking network of vacuum-powered tubes whooshing cotton from one machine to the next, the entire ginning process can take less than a minute … “when everything’s running like it should.”

“It’s the pretty part to sit back and watch,” Cutchins said.

A man and woman stand in front of cotton ginning machinery

David Condos / Kansas News Service: Jennifer Hewitt, left, and Michael Cutchins stand in front of the Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op’s upgraded gin, which opened in 2019.

In the cotton business, even the trash isn’t really trash. Every part of the plant that gets processed here turns into profits.

The sticks and leaves the machinery separates from the lint are sold to feed yards where they add roughage to cattle diets.

And the tiny seed that Eli Whitney invented the first cotton gin to remove more than 200 years ago is in high demand. Dairies feed it to milk cows because it’s packed with protein. Mills crush it to make lip balms and cooking oils.

Under a shelter outside the warehouse, Cutchins and co-op office manager Jennifer Hewitt gaze up at a mountain of seeds that resembles a highway department’s stash of road salt.

Selling the seeds now makes up a majority of the gin’s income. But no matter which part of the plant the co-op’s revenue comes from, Hewitt said it all helps make cotton farming a viable option for farmers in this region.

“That’s the whole point of a co-op, so it’s not an individual owner that’s getting to pocket the money,” Hewitt said. “At the end of the day, the profit goes back to the producers.”

On the borderline

Kansas cotton fields covered just 16,000 acres in 2015. By 2020, that number had grown more than 12-fold to 195,000 acres. While that’s still only a fraction of the nearly 6 million acres growing Kansas corn, cotton farming now contributes a statewide economic impact of more than $100 million.

So why hasn’t the cotton industry been booming in Kansas all along?

One reason is cotton plants need heat. Lots of it.

“As you go farther north,” Jonathan Aguilar, a water resources engineer with Kansas State University, said, “we are considered what we call ‘thermal limited.’”

That’s why it’s more commonly planted in places like Texas and the Southeast. The areas along U.S. 50 in western Kansas are generally considered the northernmost reaches of cotton’s growing range here.

But as climate change brings more heat to Kansas, that borderline could continue inching north. And drought, which can be a death knell for other crops, might give cotton the heat it needs to make more lint.

“You might think about drought as (something that’s) going to be devastating,” Aguilar said. “But actually, it may improve the production of cotton here.”

At his research plots near Garden City, Aguilar studies exactly how much water might be the right amount for cotton in this region. He’s found that irrigating these plants too much can actually decrease their productivity.

Other K-State research shows even just one inch of irrigation, if applied at the right time, could significantly boost cotton harvests. In order to get that same type of increase in a corn crop, Aguilar said farmers would have to use at least five inches of water.

That’s a big deal in this part of Kansas, which depends heavily on the dwindling Ogallala Aquifer for both irrigation and drinking water.

Another barrier that kept cotton from catching on in Kansas is herbicide drift, when chemicals intended for grain fields cause havoc on nearby cotton. For example, the wind can carry vapor of the herbicide 2,4-D for miles, unintentionally causing severe harm to cotton plants within that range.

But Aguilar said new cotton varieties have recently been developed to withstand those herbicides, opening the door for more farmers to give it a try in their crop rotations alongside those grains.

Cotton bales stacked up at a warehouse

David Condos / Kansas News Service: At the PCCA warehouse in Liberal, Kansas, tens of thousands of cotton bales wait to be shipped out.

Even with the potential upside cotton has shown in the region, people like Jayce Winters, communications manager for the Plains Cotton Cooperative Association, or PCCA, often find that convincing Kansas farmers to give it a try can be tough.

“Cotton is a big learning curve,” Winters said. “It involves different machinery, different technology, different growing systems. The marketing process is entirely different.”

And it doesn’t help that Kansas hasn’t historically had much cotton infrastructure — things like the cotton gins that turn harvests into bales and the warehouses that store those bales while they wait to be shipped off to textile mills around the globe.

“It doesn’t matter what your commodity is,” Winters said. “If you don’t have a system in place to be able to help you handle what comes next … there’s really no sense in growing it.”

But that’s starting to change.

Winters said the state’s four gins have made significant improvements over the past few years to to handle bigger harvests. PCCA’s cotton warehouse in Liberal can hold up to 150,000 bales, and the group recently opened a $12.5 million warehouse — the state’s second — southwest of Wichita.

‘We gotta take some risks’

When Andy Moser started growing cotton on his land in Stevens County southwest of Moscow five years ago, it might have taken five months to get his crop processed. That meant he had to wait five months after harvest to get paid.

This season, it only took a couple of weeks.

“As more people get comfortable with it, I do think acres will steadily increase,” he said. “Some of that will be out of necessity, and some of it will be out of economics.”

That’s because farmers have to worry about which combination of crops will give them the best chance to keep their operations afloat in a given season. Moser said the cotton market can still be “boom or bust,” and the number of acres Kansas farmers planted with cotton dipped down again this past year.

But as the availability of water on Moser’s farm has dropped, the number of acres he’s planted with cotton has gone up. Right now, cotton takes up about a quarter of his land. That leaves him with enough water to irrigate the corn he grows on his other fields.

A man resting his hand near cotton gin saws.

David Condos / Kansas News Service: The channel saws on this machine at the Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op remove sticks from the cotton lint.

And with cotton prices higher than they’ve been in a decade, Moser said the chance he took on growing cotton this year is paying off — he just wishes he had planted more of it.

“The profitability of it can really be pretty eye-opening,” Moser said. “The old guys just want to grow corn or just want to grow milo or grow what they’re used to, and young guys, sometimes we gotta take some risks to get ahead.”

That generational divide may represent one of the last remaining hurdles to cotton’s growth in Kansas.

For producers who have grown grain for generations, planting this unfamiliar crop for the first time can still feel like a big risk. And Jennifer Hewitt with the Moscow cotton gin said she doesn’t blame anyone for being hesitant.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh, let’s sow some seed in the ground,’” Hewitt said. “You’re going to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to try something new, and it’s extremely scary.”

A woman points to part of a cotton gin operation

David Condos / Kansas News Service: This control station manages the gin operation at the Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op. Here, Jennifer Hewitt points through the glass that separates the station from the machinery.

She plans to hold pop-up meetings around the state this year to help more producers get familiar with cotton.

But she knows that changing the culture among farmers here will take time. Maybe even generations.

“It seems like the number one reason we hear is, ‘Well, Grandpa says no,’” she said. “But as the younger generation takes over and starts realizing they need other options, I think it’ll become more and more popular.”

And as grain fertilizer costs rise and water levels drop, she expects southwest Kansas attitudes — and acres — to keep shifting in cotton’s direction.

“That’s why we’ve built what we’ve built.”

David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of High Plains Public Radio, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and KMUW focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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