RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Devastating rains on the far side of the world are affecting farm fields in Kansas. Last year's flooding in Pakistan affected the cotton crop there, and that's just one of the factors driving up the price of cotton. Higher prices encourage farmers to grow the crop in unexpected places.
Harvest Public Media's Eric Durban reports.
ERIC DURBAN: Here in Liberal, Kansas, if it wasn't for the rogue bits of cotton resembling light snow around the building, you'd have to step inside the Plains Cotton Cooperative Association warehouse to realize what's being stored here. Unlike the iconic grain elevators that dot the Midwestern landscape, this huge metal warehouse in southwest Kansas is the only one of its kind in the state. And warehouse manager Jim Pittman is keeping busy.
Mr. JIM PITTMAN (Manager, Plains Cotton Cooperative Association): It's constant motion, almost pure chaos.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DURBAN: There's a method to the madness though, Pittman says. A detailed computer system shows him the exact location of each bale here.
Mr. PITTMAN: You know, you look at the size of this building and it's rather large, and you would think oh, it's like finding a needle in a hay stack.
DURBAN: Cotton is traditionally seen as a southern crop. After all, farmers living in America's bread basket should be growing grains, right? In a state long dominated by wheat and corn, there's now a new crop on the block.
Agriculture economists forecast Kansas farmers will plant 20,000 acres of cotton this year, the fourth largest percentage increase of the 17 cotton producing states. Virginia, another state new to the crop, is looking at the largest jump in cotton acreage.
Flooding in Pakistan and supply shortages in China and India has helped cotton reach price levels last seen during the Civil War. Much of the predicted 12 percent hike in U.S. acreage will go towards satisfying foreign demand. Cotton has one important advantage over corn and it concerns a topic Kansans know all too well: water.
Mr. KENT DUNN (Farmer): I hate to just see it go down the tubes without something beneficial - and not that corn is not beneficial but, you know, it's trying to be a wise steward of what we have. We have come a long ways in the 30-some years that I've been around here as far as evolving applications of the water.
DURBAN: Kent Dunn has rotated cotton into his southwest Kansas fields for almost a decade and now has about 1,500 acres devoted to the crop.
With many western Kansas farmers irrigating from the rapidly depleted Ogallala Aquifer, water use is on everyone's minds. And cotton uses about a third less water than corn. With more than five million acres in corn, the crop still dwarfs cotton acreage 75 to 1 in Kansas, but there's a lot of land here where cotton could be grown.
Cotton businessman Dick Cooper sees a time when corn may not be an option in parts of Kansas.
Mr. DICK COOPER (Secretary-Treasurer, Kansas Cotton Association): If we can keep economic factors to where cotton is a profitable crop to grow, we know that we will be there when those wells will not support corn production, and will give those farmers another opportunity to grow a crop they can make money with.
DURBAN: And he says cotton grown in Kansas is among the best.
Mr. COOPER: The kind of quality that we grew this year and can grow more years than not, it's as good as cotton grown anywhere in the U.S. except for the Pima type cottons in California and Arizona.
DURBAN: Some farmers, like Justin Shaddix, did plan to try growing cotton this year, but just couldn't get away from the comfort of his traditional crop.
Mr. JUSTIN SHADDIX (Farmer): We're alfalfa people, and that's basically what we've done for the last 20 years. And it seemed the right thing to do because of the hay shortage that we're going to have.
DURBAN: Back in Liberal, Kansas, the warehouse shipping log shows last year's crop went far and wide, from Brazil to Taiwan. You may even have a piece of Kansas cotton in your pocket right now. That's because each U.S. dollar bill is made of 75 percent cotton.
For NPR News, I'm Eric Durban, in Garden City, Kansas.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.